I’m a college student and am trying really hard to be vegan because of all the benefits that lifestyle 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 number 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 me how much vegetables, fruits, etc., to eat. How can I have healthy vegan eating habits and still get enough to eat while working out about 3-4 times per week?
Each day more and more people, young and old, are making a shift to either a vegan or plant-based diet for the immense health benefits, as well as the ethical and environmental benefits. While transitioning to such a lifestyle can be easy, if it is not approached with some care and proper information, it can backfire, especially when it comes to our health. What I have seen countless times are people who try to go vegan but don’t do it in any kind of balanced or informed way, and they end up with various nutritional deficiencies and new health problems. Then, they are the first and loudest to speak out against vegan eating, claiming that it nearly “killed them” when the truth is that their lack of preparation, planning, and poor choices created problematic diets that resulted in their ill-health.
Any diet, regardless if it includes animal products or not, can be destructive to our health if it does not include enough calories and nutrients required by our body.
So it is nothing short of ironic that every day most people in our society are eating destructive diets that lead to their health and weight problems. Yet, the disastrous impacts of these are largely overlooked only because the “majority” are doing it. Then, if someone goes vegan and encounters any problems, all of a sudden, a huge spotlight is cast, and people incorrectly assume that the removal of animal foods created the problem, when in fact it was just poor nutrition and food choices that created the problem, like any other diet.
The key thing to remember when transitioning to a vegan or plant-based diet is that it is not about whether we eat any animal products or not that makes a diet “good” or “bad” but whether we are providing the body with sufficient, wholesome, high-quality nutrition and at the same time not ingesting harmful and destructive foods.
One of the biggest things working against people during this transition is all the misinformation regarding what a “healthy diet” entails. There are many definitions of what “healthy” means to different people and so many dietary patterns just within the plant-based movement that can be followed. It is, therefore, easy to see why people get confused, frustrated, and scared when things go wrong with their health.
How to get enough calories and nutrients on a plant-based diet
Proper plant-based eating of any kind should not leave a person feeling weak, tired, or down. For starters, plant foods offer more energy than any animal food ever will on the grounds of basic ecology and energy transfer in the Universe. So whenever there is weakness reported when someone transitions to plant-based eating, it is almost always the consequence of not eating enough - not enough food and thereby not enough calories. This does not mean that we need to count our calories when we eat any kind of plant-based diet, but we must have some general awareness about the caloric content of plant foods. Overall, plant foods are much lower in calories, when compared gram for gram or cup for cup, than animal foods. This makes it very easy to lose weight while eating plant foods and maintain an ideal weight, but it also means that growing children and youth and active adults need to consume more food or simply pay attention to eating more energy-dense whole plant foods. Here is a general overview of how different whole plant foods compare:
- Fruits provide an average amount of calories; they can be very light or very filling depending on what fruit we eat and how much we eat of it.
- Vegetables are divided into 2 groups: starchy and non-starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables are excellent sources of caloric energy, whereas non-starchy vegetables are very low in calories. For example, you can easily get enough calories per meal from a dish based on potatoes or yams but not from one based on celery or lettuce.
- Grains and Beans have very similar caloric content, and they, like starchy vegetables, are a great source of energy and need to play a central role in terms of where we get the bulk of our calories from when eating plant-based diets.
- Nuts and Seeds are very high sources of calories. Therefore, they can easily bulk up a plant-based diet that is deficient or low in calories, but they can also create an excess of calories if eaten too often or in too large of amounts.
- Mushrooms are optimally healthy fungi foods that are included in plant-based diets, and like non-starchy vegetables, they are very low in calories, and thus, cannot be depended on for a lot of energy.
Once you know the general caloric content of plant foods, as shared above, then the goal is two-fold: eat enough food each day for your needs and eat nutrient-dense meals. We must be diligent in eating 3 full meals a day or 4 to 6 smaller meals throughout the day, depending on what is better for your metabolic needs or lifestyle considerations. In addition, snacks are possible and greatly encouraged in some cases, such as for growing children and very active adults, as long as they are healthy whole plant-food snacks that contribute to the overall quality of the healthy plant-based diet that we are eating. We never want to eat just for the sake of eating or out of boredom or due to stress. We always need to address our mental and emotional health adequately so that it does not sabotage our diets and, in turn, our health and weight.
Likewise, our meals need to have some basic balance and variety when it comes to the actual foods we eat and their macronutrient levels. The bulk of our calories should come from healthy, wholesome carbohydrate-rich plant foods, along with enough protein and fat for our metabolic needs. Here again, nothing needs to be counted; we just need to eat enough food for our needs daily from each of the whole plant food groups outlined above. For example, eating a bowl of oatmeal with some added fruits and nuts is a good and nutritionally balanced meal, whereas eating rice crackers with some celery and carrot sticks is not.
When it comes to nutrients, it is vital to know that all whole plant foods contain protein. It is neither hard to get enough protein nor is there any shortage of protein in a plant-based diet when the individual consumes enough food of a general variety for their caloric needs. Likewise, whole plant foods cannot be viewed from a reductionistic and narrow perspective that classifies them as merely “protein” or “carbs,” etc. Beans, for example, are very high in both protein and carbohydrates, not to mention most vitamins and minerals. Most whole plant foods are low in fat, so it is vital to add in some fat-rich whole plant foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, coconuts, and olives. Finally, while all whole plant foods are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, it is the fruits and vegetables that are the richest in these and provide the most healing, protective, and preventative benefits for our health and why our diets need to include lots of them to be optimally healthy.
No matter how we look at it, the key is to eat enough food for your needs of a basic variety from each of the general groups of whole plant foods daily to meet our caloric and nutrient needs adequately. The more nutrient-rich your diet is, the more you benefit from its healing and protective benefits.
How to create healthy plant-based meals
A simple set of formulas to follow when making meals revolve around making sure that we get enough high-calorie, macronutrient-rich plant foods AND low-calorie, micronutrient-rich plant foods. Here is a general pattern to follow with appropriate variety in mind:
- Meals based on grains and fruits
- Meals based on grains and non-starchy vegetables
- Meals based on starchy and non-starchy vegetables
- Meals based on beans and non-starchy vegetables
- Meals based on grains, beans, and non-starchy vegetables
- Meals based on beans, starchy, and non-starchy vegetables
You want to avoid mixing beans and fruits, as this is not a good food combination, and you want to use fruits as much as possible as your snacks, eating them on their own. Nuts, seeds, mushrooms, herbs, and spices should be used as additions to the above meals to balance them out nutritionally, as required and desired.
When you are ready to make your meals, be sure to focus on the above formulas more so than on any recipes. Such general formulas are guaranteed to always guide you in the right nutritional direction while providing you with ample flexibility to use and eat whatever whole plant food ingredients you have easily accessible to you. Recipes, on the other hand, are very restrictive and can often be a source of stress and complexity for a lot of people. They can provide you with some great ideas and teach you some basic cooking skills, but you need something faster, easier, and more versatile for everyday use. This is why I teach based on meal templates in my Cook Real Food Plant-Based Course because they can be used by anyone, anywhere, anytime to create simple, easy, healthy, and nutritionally balanced plant-based meals.
Practical plant-based meal ideas
With the above-mentioned guidelines in mind, you can make infinite combinations of any of the following types of meals:
- Smoothies and smoothie bowls
- Cooked grain cereal bowls
- Crepes and pancakes
- Bean salads and grain salads
- Sandwiches and wraps
- Soups and stews
- Curries and chilies
- Bean and veggie patties (burgers)
- Veggie lasagnas
- Veggie pizzas
- Veggie potpies and casseroles
Here is what a typical day can look like when eating an optimally healthy whole food, plant-based diet:
PLANT-BASED BREAKFAST IDEAS:
- Green smoothie (leafy greens, fruits, seeds, and water) with 2 pieces of a pure whole-grain bread topped with nut butter and fruit slices.
- Cooked grain bowl of old-fashioned oats cooked in water to your liking (thick or runny) and stir in fresh or frozen fruits and raw nuts.
- Tofu scramble with 2 pieces of a pure whole-grain bread topped with mashed avocado and tomato.
PLANT-BASED LUNCH IDEAS:
- Whole-meal salad based on cooked beans, leafy greens, and other non-starchy vegetables with a creamy nut or seed vegan sauce.
- Sandwich or wrap with hummus, avocado, sauteed mushrooms, and non-starchy vegetable slices.
- Soup or stew with any combo of beans, grains, starchy, and non-starchy vegetables.
PLANT-BASED DINNER IDEAS:
- STAR Meals based on starchy vegetables or grains with non-starchy vegetables with a creamy nut or seed vegan sauce.
- Curry or chili with any combo of beans, grains, mushrooms, and non-starchy vegetables.
- Veggie pizza or veggie lasagna or veggie burgers.
PLANT-BASED SNACK IDEAS:
- Fresh fruit(s)
- Dried fruit(s)
- Raw nuts
- Fruit and nut treats (balls, bars, squares, cakes)
- Hummus and wholesome flatbreads and non-starchy veggies
- Fruit nice cream
Required wholesome plant foods
In addition to making sure that you have enough fresh fruits and vegetables available each week for your daily meals and snacks, as well as any other possible perishable foods, like mushrooms, fresh herbs and spices, and frozen fruits and vegetables, here is a quick and general list of items to always stock in your pantry for quick and easy meal preparation as part of your vegan or plant-based diet:
- Dry whole grains
- Dry beans
- Raw nuts
- Raw seeds
- Dry herbs
- Dry spices
- Dry sea vegetables
- Unrefined salt
Plant-based eating for athletes and active people
For anyone who does any kind of intense physical training or vigorous physical exercise, the answer is to eat more food in general on a daily basis and not fall into the false trap of thinking that you only need more protein. The obsession with focusing on protein alone is a misguided idea that is most heavily pushed by gyms and fitness centers which make it seem like protein alone is responsible for weight loss and muscle development. The truth of the complete picture, especially for those who are interested in optimal health and long-term health, is that as our energy expenditure increases, we need to provide our body with more of everything - calories and all nutrients, and not just some, one, specific nutrient alone.
The more we work our body, the more we need, especially the healing benefits of highly alkaline fruits and vegetables and not the highly acidic diets associated with protein from animal foods and synthetic protein supplements. This is why research has shown that athletes who eat plant-based diets have better performance and recovery. As we increase the amount of food we eat, we naturally increase the amount of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals that we need proportionately. Therefore, the more active you are, the more you need to eat energy-rich whole plant foods to sustain your daily needs and nutrient-rich whole plant foods to heal your body from the impacts of intense physical activities. To learn more about this topic, please read my answer to Is a plant-based diet good for athletes and bodybuilders?.
Plant-based transition summary tips
- The most important thing when transitioning to a vegan or plant-based diet is to be mindful of your daily choices - how much are you eating and what foods are you eating as part of your meals and snacks.
- Learn some fundamental basics about nutrition, your food, and your human body. This will go a long way in shielding you from all of the myths and misinformation out there that are pushed by different people’s biases, fears, and agendas. This will also help you to be empowered and confident in knowing how to make the best choices for eating and sustaining a healthy plant-based diet.
- Do not make your plant-based diet a mock-animal-based diet. Yes, there are imitation or mock meats, including cold cuts, bacon, sausage, and even seafood of all kinds today. There are also all kinds of non-dairy yogurt, ice cream, cheese, milk, and butter. There are even imitation eggs that are of a plant origin. And while these types of foods can help people transition from animal-based to plant-based diets, essentially, they are all processed foods. Some are better than others, especially when homemade without all of the additives and preservatives and high salt or sugar amounts, but still, they are processed foods. Therefore, these foods should be used minimally, if at all, especially for those who are going vegan or plant-based for health reasons. For more information on healthy plant-based substitutions for common animal foods, please see my answer to How to replace animal foods with healthy plant-based foods.
- Engage in conscious planning to take accountability for your food choices. Our society has come a long way to support plant-based eating, but it is still far away from making it easy and accessible for everyone, anywhere in the world. Therefore, you cannot depend on someone or some place out there providing you with what you need; rather, you need to know where your food and adequate meals will come from, whether you are going to school, work, or traveling. Sure, grabbing some french fries or chips can be a quick, cheap, and easy plant-based way to fill your hunger but these kinds of choices are far from healthy and not what it takes to create an optimally functioning and long-lasting human body. These are the kinds of choices that create nutritional deficiencies and weight problems on both plant-based and other diets, and as such, should never be depended on as any kind of adequate food option. Poor nutrition is poor nutrition no matter what lifestyle label we apply to it.
- Take things step-by-step. One of the biggest reasons why people abandon vegan or plant-based eating is because they get overwhelmed. If you go into this dietary change too quickly and without having the right information and preparation in place, then it is highly likely that you will end up getting overwhelmed early on into the journey and abandon it altogether. When transitioning to a vegan or plant-based diet, success is not measured by how fast you change to adopt it but by how long you stick with it. The more you take things step-by-step, the more sustainable your change is likely to be because you give yourself the time you need to prepare, adapt, and adjust along every step of the way. So perhaps change your diet one meal at a time or perhaps change your diet one day of the week at a time. Whatever you choose and however you choose to transition, be sure that it works for you and gives you enough time and comfort to develop a strong foundation to make this a well-grounded and long-lasting change.
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, please refer to my book Healing & Prevention Through Nutrition.