Each day more and more people are making a shift to either vegetarian or vegan diet for the health benefits, as well as the ethical benefits where the animals are concerned, and sustainability benefits where the environment is concerned.

While transitioning to such a way of life can be easy, if not approached with some care and proper information, it can actually backfire especially when it comes to our health. What I have seen in many such cases, are stories of people who try to go vegan or vegetarian, don’t do it in a properly balanced and informed way, and are later the first ones to tout that this way of life nearly killed them. While I do not wish for anyone to suffer any ill health, the truth is that the SAD diet is killing millions everyday, and yet our society does not seem outraged by that. Then when people try to choose another way, like vegetarianism and continue with poor eating habits of a different nature, all of a sudden the whole lifestyle is put down.

The key thing to remember when transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, is that it is not about whether we eat meat, or animal products or not. It is about proper, wholesome, high-quality nutrition and learning how to attain that, no matter which eating lifestyle one chooses.

I know that one of the biggest things working against us in this transition, are all the different stories and misinformation when it comes to what a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet entails. Add to this the fact that no matter what diet, there are so many definitions of what “healthy” means and so many differing opinions on which nutrients we need, in what amounts, and it is sure to leave anyone confused, not just a new vegan or vegetarian.

To address this issue and help others make this transition as easy and successful as possible, I will share a question I recently got from a reader named Erin who is trying to do just that—transition to a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle in a healthy manner.

Erin writes:

I’m a college student and am trying really hard to be a Vegan or Vegetarian because of all the benefits those life styles can have on your body. Today, I ate breakfast and then lunch and then a snack and I realized that I was feeling weak. I calculated the amount of calories in my meals and realized that I had only eaten about 825 calories. Also, I am overwhelmed by all the information out there telling how much vegetables, fruits, etc., to eat. How can I have healthy eating habits and still get enough to eat while working out about 3-4 times per week?

Here is my answer to Erin:

Proper veg eating should not leave one weak, tired, etc. For starters, plant foods offer more energy than any animal food ever will based on the basics of ecology and energy transfer in the Universe. So hearing that you are feeling as you do, it comes down to one main thing first off and that is, not eating enough. It doesn’t matter if it is plant or animal matter.

To begin with, we do not need to count anything. Eating veg can be easy, simple, healthy and delicious, it just begins with getting to know some basics to establish the right foundation. Sure, at the beginning we need to be a little more aware of our food choices, but once it becomes a habit, the flow of this lifestyle can be like any non-vegetarian one. If one wants to keep a food diary of their food, especially at the beginning, it can be helpful, but is in no way necessary. We simply need to listen to our bodies and be mindful of our actions.

First, eat enough each day. This means be diligent about eating 3 meals a day or 4 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day, depending on what is better for your metabolic needs or practical considerations. Snacks, in between meals, are a great idea, as long as they are quality, healthy choices, and we are listening to our body that it actually needs them. We never want to eat, just for the sake of eating, or out of boredom or for emotional needs.

Second, meals must be nutrient-dense. This means making sure there are quality carbohydrates, proteins, and fats present, as well as lots of vitamins and minerals. Eating rice crackers alone is not a nutrient-dense meal or snack. Eating celery and almond butter can make a great snack, but lacks nutrient-density for being a full-fledged meal.

How to Create Vegetarian/Vegan Meals

One simple formula is to focus on making each meal either rich in beans and vegetables, or grains and vegetables. One can mix grains, beans and vegetables if desired, though it is not necessary. We have to remember that all whole foods contain protein and carbohydrates, so we can no longer look at any one food as ‘the protein’ or another food as ‘the carbohydrate’. Additionally, most plant foods tend to be low in fats, so it is vital to add in some whole fat-rich foods like nuts, seeds and avocados. The most important thing for optimal health is to focus your meals around the vegetables, as these are the more nutrient dense sources of quality nutrition.

With the above mentioned guidelines in hand, you can make nearly infinite combinations of different:

  • salads
  • steam, stir-fry or sautéed mixes
  • soups, stews or chilies
  • wet or dry curries
  • different wraps or sandwiches using sprouted grain breads/wraps

A few exceptions to the above guidelines would include:

  • green smoothies (generally vegetable, fruit and seed based)
  • cooked cereal grains, like oats (generally grain-based, with some fruits and seeds or nuts)
  • single food snacks (nuts, vegetables, fruits)
  • other possible combinations for snacks or meals

Whatever the meal is, the key is always to have a variety of macro and micro nutrients, which all whole, plant foods naturally and easily provide.

WHOLE-MEAL SALADS: If one is going to have a big salad for lunch, then the salad should include a bean and/or a grain mixed in, not just be lettuce and tomatoes, etc. A whole-meal salad would have around 5 to 10 ingredients, 2 to 4 of those being vegetables, on top of the leafy green that the salad is based on. Other possible additions include:

  • a grain-like addition, like quinoa
  • a bean or legume
  • some nuts and/or seeds
  • a natural homemade dressing (ex: fresh lemon squeezed, minced garlic, with herbs and spices)

WHOLE-MEAL SOUPS: If one is going to have a soup, again making sure that the soup has a hardy amount of various ingredients is key. A several bean and vegetable soup is wonderful, as is a pureed vegetable soup with brown rice noodles or beans for example.

BREAKFASTS: Breakfasts should be wholesome as well, especially that they are the most important meal to break the state of fasting our bodies are under during the night. They can include whole meal green smoothies, based on leafy greens, various fruits, possibly some vegetables, as well as seeds and/or nuts, and other superfoods. Breakfast can also include various whole, cooked grains, like steel cut oats, with added fruits and nuts, or salads, or veggie wraps, or veggie omelets (if one chooses to eat eggs) or an eggless tofu scramble.

SNACKS: Snacks should be composed of whole, nutrient rich foods like fruits, veggies with hummus, dates, etc. Avoiding sugary drinks and granola or chocolate bars is important, as these items quickly spike our blood sugar and then leave us on an often uncomfortable energy low. Not to mention they have many other unhealthy attributes.

Going Veg While Working Out

For anyone who is working out also, the key is more of every food, not just an increase of the protein or carb category. As we eat more for our metabolic needs, we naturally satisfy the requirements of more carbohydrates, more proteins, more fats, and more micronutrients.

For breakfast for example, if you stay vegetarian you can have a boiled egg, with some Ezekiel bread and almond butter and a small fruit/veg smoothie. If you go vegan, a whole-meal green smoothie with hemp seeds, (4-5 tablespoons of hemp seeds = 20 g of protein) and some nuts or nut butters. Listening to our body is always number one, and getting to know our food is an important second.

Vegan/Vegetarian Summary Tips

The most important thing again when transitioning to a veg lifestyle is just to learn some basics about nutrition, and hence our food. We need to know what constitutes a healthy source of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. We need to know what our major sources of vitamins and minerals will be.

After that, the only thing left is some conscious planning. Our society is not yet set up to accommodate vegans or vegetarians properly, at least not those who are interested in real healthy eating. While grabbing french fries can be a quick, cheap and easy way to fill our hunger, it is in no way a healthy option for a veg or non-veg person. Poor nutrition is poor nutrition, no matter what lifestyle label we apply to it.

Along these lines, another very important note to make about transitioning to a veg lifestyle is not to look for, focus on, or rely on animal food substitutions. If you enjoyed beef burgers all your life and now want to be a vegetarian, processed veggie burgers are not going to be a healthy food choice. Mock-meats and mock-cheeses are usually highly processed foods. With the veg lifestyles becoming increasingly popular, food companies have made sure to provide a veg substitute of almost everything, including veg Oreo cookies. This is not our solution though. As I mentioned above, poor nutrition is poor nutrition, regardless of what lifestyle label it comes with. For more information on healthy veg substitutions see the article I wrote on how to handle vegetarian and vegan food substitutions for common food items.

Vegan/Vegetarian Healthy Food List

To wrap up, here is a quick breakdown list of truly healthy, high quality foods in each of the major nutrient categories to choose from. Your job then is to simply mix and match, and flavor to suit your own taste bud preferences.

High Quality Carb-Rich / Starch Foods:

High Quality Protein-Rich Foods:

  • Beans (all, preferably sprouted or cooked, not canned)
  • Lentils (all, preferably sprouted or cooked, not canned)
  • Hummus and Bean Spreads
  • Organic Tempeh
  • Organic Tofu
  • Hemp Seeds
  • Other nuts or seeds

If vegetarian:

  • Organic Eggs (local, fresh)
  • Organic Kefir/Yogurt (full fat, plain)
  • Organic Milk (raw, full fat, plain)

High Quality Fat-Rich Foods:

  • Nuts (raw, all natural, unsalted, unflavored)
  • Seeds (raw, all natural, unsalted, unflavored)
  • Nut and Seed Butters (all natural, unsweetened, preferably raw)
  • Coconut — fresh and whole, or dry, or coconut butter
  • Olives (organic, not preserved)
  • Avocado

Vitamins & Minerals:

Our vitamin and minerals come from all of the above, and other similar nutrient-rich, natural foods. However, the richest vitamin and mineral sources come from vegetables and fruits. Other foods included here also contain other powerful and healthful nutrient compounds, such as probiotics or immune boosting compounds found in mushrooms.

  • Lots of vegetables, especially leafy greens,
  • Fruits (fresh, raw and dried, unsulphured)
  • Naturally fermented foods
  • Mushrooms, especially Asian
  • Herbs (organic, fresh or dried)
  • Spices (organic, fresh or dried)
  • Sea Vegetables (dulse, wakame, nori, etc.)

For more information on optimally healthy plant-based eating to know the exact how’s and why’s of various foods, nutrients, preparation, and cooking methods, see Healing & Prevention Through Nutrition.