How to Be a Healthy Vegan

A vegan diet can be healthy, but you need to choose foods wisely and not neglect essential nutrients.

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Many people with arthritis wonder whether they should follow a specific diet to relieve joint pain and swelling. There’s not enough evidence to point to any one definitive arthritis-fighting diet. But it’s recommended to focus on an anti-inflammatory way of eating, which emphasizes whole, fresh, mostly plant-based foods and avoids high-fat and processed foods.

One diet that has been gaining increasing popularity is a vegan diet. Like vegetarians, vegans do not eat any meat. They also avoid all animal products, including dairy and eggs.

The effect of a vegan diet on arthritis has been studied, and there is some evidence that it may help people with rheumatoid arthritis. This may be due to increased intake of antioxidants and fiber or to beneficial changes in the bacteria that live in our intestines, which aid digestion and can also influence the release of inflammatory proteins. There is less evidence for the effects of a vegan diet on other forms of arthritis. Research is ongoing.

Food Choice Matters

You don’t have to go so far as to be a vegetarian or vegan to be healthy, but some people choose to go vegan. Keep in mind though that just being vegan does not mean you are guaranteed to follow a healthy diet. “You can eat white bagels with jelly all day, and it’s vegan but not healthy,” says Cleveland Clinic dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD. No matter what eating pattern you follow, food choices matter.

walnuts

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Kirkpatrick tells her vegan patients to focus on color. “Try to get foods of nine colors into your diet every day,” she says. She advises experimenting with different vegetables and making sure to get enough protein. “It’s a myth that you need animal protein to sustain energy,” says Kirkpatrick. Beans, legumes and tofu have lots of protein.

Nutrients You Need

People on a vegan diet must pay particular attention to getting adequate amounts of certain nutrients. For example, vitamin B12 comes only from animal sources. Therefore, you’ll need to take a supplement. Talk to your doctor about the right dose. Kirkpatrick suggests taking it in a drop or lozenge that dissolves under the tongue (sublingual), which may be more easily digested than apill.

You also need to make sure to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, which the body needs but can’t make. It must come from food, and fish is a great source. Some plants contain the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form of omega-3 fatty acids. Kirkpatrick recommends boosting consumption of these foods (see box). You can also take a plant-based omega-3 supplement, which is derived from algae.

The other important nutrient you must not neglect is calcium. Your body needs calcium for a variety of important functions in addition to bone health. Calcium is plentiful in dairy products. If you aren’t consuming any dairy, you need to get it from plants.

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“Among plants, collard greens probably have the most calcium,” says Kirkpatrick. But there are many others as well (see box).

Getting Started

If you want to start a vegan diet, Kirkpatrick recommends discussing it with a dietitian or your doctor. “It’s also helpful to talk to people who are doing the diet,” she says. They can help with advice about food choices.

You can find products that are marketed as being “vegan,” such as fake cheese or fake meat. But youmay end up eating a lot of processed food. In general, Kirkpatrick advises eating as much whole food aspossible.

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