How to Eat a Balanced Vegan or Plant-Based Diet, from a Nutritionist
Following a vegan or plant-based diet can be great for your health and the planet, but it can also be challenging if you don't pay attention to your daily needs of macronutrients, or "macros" which are: Protein, Healthy Fat, and Calories. For some people, losing weight is the goal, but for others, including athletic, active, or physically larger builds, going plant-based can lead to unwanted weight loss and persistent feelings of hunger. This is totally avoidable, with a little planning and education about where to get your macros.
A balanced vegan diet full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds should provide everything your body needs to sustain healthy muscle, fuel a lean athletic body, and support intense training (I've coached many marathoners to the finish line) if you know what you're doing.
Eating nutritious whole plant foods is the backbone of a plant-based diet, but it’s also common for someone new to veganism to under-consume calories, or end up neglecting certain nutrients and ending up filling up on processed junk. Not to worry! With a little bit of nutrition education and a few easy diet tweaks, you’ll be on your way to eating a well-balanced vegan diet in no time. Here are my tips for eating a balanced vegan or plant-based diet and staying on track.
First: What are the signs that your diet isn’t balanced?
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I hear this from many of my clients, who know that something is off with their nutrition, but they can’t pinpoint the problem. There are a few telltale physical signs that you may not be nourishing your body properly on a vegan diet. Here are a few things to look out for.
- Weight loss: Plant foods are lower in calories than animal foods. If you recently transitioned to a plant-based diet and start to unintentionally lose weight, you may be eating fewer calories than you need. In other words, you’re likely malnourished.
- Constant hunger: Protein is one of the most important nutrients for appetite control. If you’re not eating enough protein on your plant-based diet, you may feel like your stomach is constantly rumbling.
- Low energy levels: There are many reasons for enduring fatigue, such as not taking in enough calories or missing out on micronutrients, like iron or Vitamin B12.
- Brittle hair, nails, and bones: If your hair or nails are constantly breaking, you may be deficient in calcium or protein. And if you’ve experienced unexpected bone breaks, that can also be a sign that your diet is lacking.
These warning signs are a good indicator that something is amiss. Start by talking to your doctor, and adjust your diet to take into account the following recommendations.
What is a proper vegan macro breakdown?
Carbs, protein, and fat, otherwise known as macronutrients, or "macros," make up the majority of any diet. To create a balanced vegan diet, aim to eat these macro rations:
- Carbohydrates: 45–65% of total daily calories
- Fat: 25–35% of total daily calories
- Protein: 20–30% of total daily calories
The number of calories you eat per day will vary based on your age, your overall size and your nutrition goals. But to give a rough estimate, someone eating between 1,600 to 1,800 calories per day should consume around:
- 180- 290 grams of carbs
- 60- 90 grams of fat
- 80- 130 grams of protein
There is often some confusion over what constitutes a carb, fat, and protein.
Carbs are abundant in plant-based foods, and they are more than just starches. As the main fuel source for exercise, healthy complex carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
Fats play a role in organ protection, and they also serve as fuel for lower intensity workouts. Opt for healthy unsaturated fat sources, such as avocados, oils, nuts, and seeds. Lastly, protein is necessary for muscle growth and overall strength. Plant-based proteins include soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, soybeans and edamame, beans, legumes and even whole grains.
Micronutrients to pay attention to on a vegan or plant-based diet
All nutrients are significant, but some require a little bit more attention on a vegan diet. If you think you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, ask your doctor to check your levels with a simple blood test and then chat about supplementation. These micronutrients are ones you may be missing out on.
Iron: This crucial micronutrient delivers oxygen through the blood to the tissues. Because plant-based iron is not absorbed as well as iron in animal foods, vegans need to eat more of it. Without enough iron in your diet, you may feel constantly fatigued. Luckily, you can get plenty of iron from foods like lentils, chickpeas, oats, and tofu.
Vitamin B12: This vitamin is necessary for red blood cell formation and energy production. It’s primarily found in meat, but vegan sources include nutritional yeast, fortified plant milks and fortified cereals.
Calcium & Vitamin D: Both of these nutrients play a major role in bone health, which deteriorates as you age. Calcium is primarily in dairy foods, but it’s also easy to come by in soy, green veggies and nuts. The main source of Vitamin D is sunlight, but absorption rates vary based on skin tone and exposure to sun. Mushrooms are en excellent vegan source of Vitamin D, but many people choose to supplement to avoid deficiencies.
Most people need 600 IUs of vitamin D a day, which can be difficult to get without a supplement. The recommended amount of calcium is 1,000 to 1,200 a day, and while it can be found in beets, beans, lentils and deep green leafy vegetables like kale, rhubarb, and spinach as well as tofu, edamame, and figs, you may want to consider supplementing.
Your sample vegan or plant-based meal plan
Now let’s put these macros and micros together to create a well-balanced day of vegan eating. Follow the sample day of meals and snacks below to ensure you’re giving your body everything it needs.
- Breakfast: Tofu Scramble, add in sauteed mushrooms for a Vitamin D boost
- Lunch: Sesame Quinoa & Tofu Thai Bowl
- Snack: Hummus & Veggies or Crunchy Roasted Chickpeas
- Dinner: Vegan Black Bean Burger with Kale Salad with Roasted Cauliflower
If you’re not sure if you’re meeting your nutrient needs, consult with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in plant-based eating to help create a meal plan that fits your goals and activity level.
Natalie Rizzo, RD is a Registered Dietician who works with athletes and others. Natalie has written for national media outlets, including NBC News, Shape, Runner’s World, and others.