Since 2014, almost a million people in 192 countries have tried Veganuary—eating vegan for the month of January. People try vegan diets for lots of reasons. They may be concerned about animal welfare, the environmental impact of eating meat, or improving their health. If you’re thinking of trying a vegan diet to be healthier, here are a few things you should know.
1. “Vegan” doesn’t always mean “healthy”
Alexandra Lessem, a family nurse practitioner at Banner Health in Greeley, CO, has a certificate in plant-based nutrition and is continuing her education and research in the field. She points out that a vegan diet and a whole-food, plant-based diet aren’t necessarily the same thing, although both eliminate animal products—no meat, dairy, or eggs.
But a vegan diet could include processed foods that are high in sugar, fat, or additives. Plant-based diets are focused on foods as close to their natural state as possible. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are the foundation of a plant-based diet.
“A raw apple, for example, would be a classic example of a whole-plant food. An apple pie made with vegan shortening and an egg replacement would be vegan, but not whole-food plant-based,” Lessem said.
2. A whole-food, plant-based diet is loaded with health benefits
“For health benefits, the best bang for the buck is a whole-food, plant-based diet,” Lessem said.
This diet can help prevent and reverse heart disease. It can reduce the risk of breast, colon, prostate, stomach, endometrial, and other cancers, and slow tumor growth. It can reduce your risk of diabetes and, if you have diabetes, help eliminate your need for medication. It can also help you lose weight, improve your mood, give you more energy, help you sleep better, and combat anxiety and depression.
3. Anyone could benefit from a month of vegan eating
“There are very few people who couldn’t benefit in some way from eating a plant-based diet for a month, or forever,” Lessem said. “Whether you’re trying to lose weight, improve your chronic health conditions, or just feel better, giving a plant-based diet a shot is a great option.”
If you have a lot of food allergies it could be more challenging, but Lessem said she knows plenty of people who eat a plant-based diet and avoid soy, gluten, nuts, and other common allergens.
4. It’s easier than ever to try a plant-based diet
“Don’t be intimidated or scared,” Lessem said. “Several years ago, it was definitely more challenging, but now pretty much anywhere you go has some plant-based options on the menu.”
And there are lots of resources for cooking at home. Check them out now and start planning your shopping and meals:
- Veganuary has loads of recipes
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine offers the 21 Day Vegan Kickstart
- Forks Over Knives offers recipes, meal planning guides, tips, and a recipe app
5. You’ll want to start eating more fiber now
Plant-based diets are loaded with fiber—that’s one of the things that makes them so healthy. But too much fiber all at once can cause bloating, gas, and discomfort. Start upping your fiber intake and drinking lots of water before January, so it’s not such a shock to your system. And if you do develop symptoms, know that they’ll pass. Don’t give up.
6. Before Veganuary, make a plan with your family
If your family wants to join you, great! But if they aren’t on board don’t pressure them, Lessem said. Set an example—when they see you losing weight and gaining energy, they may be inspired to change.
And you can enlist their support even if they aren’t changing their diet. Figure out a system for preparing and sharing meals so you’re not making one meal for yourself and another for your family.
If no one in your family wants to try Veganuary, see if you can find at least one person to join you so you can make the switch together, even if you’re only connecting through phone calls or texts. That way, you can support each other.
7. You don’t need to obsess over nutrients
“People tend to get really nervous about whether or not they will get adequate nutrition from a plant-based diet and I try to reassure people that this is an unfounded worry,” Lessem said. “Everyone thinks that by giving up animal products they will shrivel up and die from protein insufficiency, which is simply not true.”
If you eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds you will get plenty of protein and other nutrients. The only thing you need for a long-term plant-based diet is a vitamin B-12 supplement. “B-12 comes from bacteria in the soil. When animals graze, they eat some of the soil, which gets the B-12 into their bodies and gets passed on in their meat or milk. For people eating no animal products, I recommend a supplement of 1000 micrograms two to three times a week,” Lessem said.
Banner Health nutritionists and dietitians are full of great ideas for creating a healthier lifestyle. Explore other articles that discuss vegan and vegetarian diets and even recommend seasonal, healthy ingredients like pumpkin.