The diet that works hard for UFC's Nate Diaz and Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris can work for you — but it's not going to be easy. Yes, we're talking about going vegan. Eating nutritiously as a vegan does take a bit of knowledge, though, so here are crucial tips to make sure you’ve got a healthy vegan diet plan.
You're going to have to count your calories now.
Because consuming enough calories worth of food is key in maintaining muscle mass, vegans who want to tone up need to keep an eye on how much they’re eating — which is to say, probably not enough. “The volume of vegan food is greater so you have to eat more,” says Matt Ruscigno, a dietitian and co-creator of Strongest Hearts, a video series on vegan athletes. “Many of my clients report feeling hungry often because they are eating less than they are used to. You can address that by eating bigger servings of veggies, beans, salads, fruits, etc.”
And don't replace everything with carbs.
Stocking up your pantry with intact grains like quinoa and amaranth means you always have a healthy, easy vegan meal to prep, but don’t forget to keep things balanced by including a few fatty ingredients, too. “New vegans who eat very carb-heavy diets that restrict foods rich in fat may find themselves craving meat and dairy foods,” says Ginny Messina, a vegan dietitian and co-author of Vegan for Life. “Using added fats like vegan mayonnaise and vegetable oils can help conquer meat cravings that new vegans experience.” Shout-outs also go to fat-filled nut butters, avocados, and coconut milk (mmm, hello veggie curry).
Stock up on supplements.
“Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended,” says Kristine Duncan, a vegetarian dietitian who notes this essential vitamin is not readily available in a wholly plant-based diet. “Depending on individual choices,” says Duncan, “other [supplements] might be [needed] as well, like vitamin D or iron.” Besides pills, be sure to check out fortified foods, like non-dairy milks, that might contain the nutrients you need.
Learn to love legumes.
Rich in protein, micronutrients, and fiber, beans and other legumes form an essential food group of a healthy vegan diet. “They’re not typically included in a standard American diet, so they’re sort of off the radar for most people,” says Duncan, “but vegans need to include them (or products made from them) every day.” Some of the most versatile and tasty legumes include lentils, split peas, soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, and garbanzo beans. Try eating a cup a day in a mix of ways: over a salad, over a grain, or as a puréed dip, just to name a few.
Plan your meals ahead.
Vegan restaurant meals have become a more frequent sighting, but it’s still pretty tough to find tasty plant food meals when you’re out and about. Add some homemade take-out to your life by prepping your meals ahead of time. “I taught one client how to make his own frozen dinners,” says Diana Cullum-Dugan, a nutrition therapist and yoga teacher. “He batch preps them on Sunday, takes one for lunch every day and has a bowl dinner for supper every night.” Pasta dishes, grain salads, and stir-fries are all delicious meals that work especially well with big-batch prepping.
Read your non-dairy milk labels.
Got non-dairy milk? Unlike cow’s milk, non-dairy milk can vary widely depending on its main ingredient. “Not all non-dairy milks are created equally, especially in the protein department,” says Duncan. “Consider that soymilk can have around eight grams of protein per cup, like traditional cow’s milk, while most almond milks have one gram.” Fortified non-dairy milks don’t all bring the same vitamins and minerals, either. “Calcium and vitamin D content vary as well, so it pays to read the whole label.” If your non-dairy milk doesn’t contain a nutrient you used to get from cow’s milk, either swap out for a non-dairy milk that does or find vegan foods, like calcium-rich greens, that will provide the same nutrients.
Find your sources of instant fuel.
Keep yourself from turning to vegan junk foods by making a list of your own favorite quick foods. With thoughtful planning, there are tons of instant fuel sources you can have at your fingertips. “Make an easy and tasty breakfast, lunch, or training snack with a smoothie of berries, kale or spinach, and flaxseeds or flax oil, maybe banana and avocado, too, all blended in vanilla-flavored almond milk,” suggests Cullum-Dugan. “Toast a whole-grain tortilla and top with refried black beans, avocado, frozen/thawed corn kernels, and salsa for a delicious lunch burrito.” Convenient meals like these can be thrown together in a snap and will make your taste buds happy too.
Keep protein-intake on the higher side.
For the record, you can get enough protein on a vegan diet. However, vegans are recommended to eat slightly more protein than the standard requirements because of the way protein from plant foods is digested. “The recommended daily amount for everyone is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight,” says Duncan. “Some researchers and professional organizations recommend intakes slightly higher for vegans, at 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight.” As an example, a man weighing 180 pounds would change his recommended daily amount from 65 grams to 80 grams of protein per day. “It’s not a big difference, but something to be aware of.”