Becoming Strong & Healthy as a Vegan
As a vegan for the last five years (and veg for a decade), I’ve learned a bit about being healthy and strong on plants.
For those who would like to learn about it, I’m offering this guide (as a non-expert fellow learner).
I had a reader write to me about becoming vegetarian, and say that he went back to the gym and feels very weak. They didn’t like the feeling they got after eating meat, so wanted a change, but they’re worried about feeling weak.
Some things to say about this:
- It’s not necessarily eating vegetarian that is causing you to feel weak — it could be a number of other things, like not eating enough calories, not getting enough sleep, not being in the gym for awhile, etc.
- If it is your diet, there are things you can do to address this. Getting enough iron, protein, calcium and other nutrients is a good idea.
- Lots of vegans are super strong — seriously, google it, there are pro football players, mixed martial artists, bodybuilders, Olympians, Crossfitters, and more who are vegan (male and female). This is strong evidence that you can be strong, fit and healthy as a vegan. If you try it and have trouble, it just might take some research and experimenting.
So it’s not only possible to be a strong and healthy vegan, I think it’s not that hard. Anyone who gets into fitness and health tends to do research and experiment to figure out what works, so it’s not any harder than that for vegans.
Here’s what I suggest, based on my research and personal experience:
- Protein. It’s actually fairly easy to get enough protein as a vegan, with minimal effort. The best protein, in my opinion, comes from beans & legumes: black, red, pinto, garbanzo, navy and white beans, for example, but also lentils (awesome), edamame (soy beans), tofu, tempeh (one of my favorites), peas and peanuts. Nuts and seeds are also awesome for protein, and whole grains have a decent amount as well. If you eat some kind of bean/legume as a main part of your meal for at least two meals, and add some nuts and seeds and whole grains into the mix, you’ll be good. There are also vegan meat substitutes, which tend to be built off of soy or wheat protein (seitan, for example). These aren’t bad for you, but I like whole foods instead, so I would not make them the biggest part of your diet. Vegans doing strength training can also add protein powder, just like any weightlifter. I personally use PlantFusion (if I use any protein powder at all), which has all the essential amino acids and is a good mix of different plant protein. All of this is to say, you can get some amazing high-quality protein from plants, easily. (Read more.)
- Greens. These are the powerhouse foods of nutrition. Kale, spinach, broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, romaine lettuce … basically anything green is full of nutrients. The best bang for your calorie. Mix greens into your tofu scramble for breakfast, into your salad for lunch (with beans and seeds and nuts of course), into your soups and chilis, into your stir-frys and lentil curries.
- Calcium. Vegans don’t drink milk, but calcium is still an important nutrient for bones and other good things. I get most of my calcium from fortified soymilk (which I have with Ezekiel cereal, nuts and and berries, or in my protein shake), but there is good calcium in green veggies, and you can take a calcium supplement if you prefer. For bones, it’s also important to get enough Vitamin D (sunshine, fortified foods or a vegan vitamin) and do some kind of strength or impact exercise like running. (Read more.)
- Iron. One of the mistakes that new vegans often make is not getting enough iron. It’s not that hard, but it can be easy to ignore. It’s pretty simple: beans, grains and greens are amazing for iron. Vitamin C (which you can find in citrus fruits, spinach and yellow and red peppers, for example) also helps with iron absorption. (Read more.)
- Vitamin B12. Vegans absolutely need Vitamin B12, as it isn’t found in abundance in plant foods. Luckily, you don’t need that much, and it’s easy to get it in fortified foods (again, soymilk, or fortified nutritional yeast). Or you can take a vitamin, which I also do just for insurance (this is what I use). I get myself tested every year or two, btw, and I easily have enough B12, iron, etc. (Read more.)
- Other important nutrients. There are other nutrients to pay attention to, like iodine, Vitamins A and K, and more. They are also not hard to get into your diet. I recommend VeganHealth.org for educating yourself.
- Healthy fats. Omega fats in general are incredible for your brain, heart and overall health … but Omega 3s are the best. It’s easy to get them in plant diets if you choose a few good foods: walnuts, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds. Or just take a vegan dha/epa pill (like a fish oil pill, but from plants) — I take this one daily. This is an important nutrient, so read up on it. In addition, I like to use olive oil and canola oil in my cooking.
This might seem like a lot, but it’s a newbie mistake to not do your research, so read up on this stuff. In fact, if you do, you’ll be more educated than most non-vegans as well, who are often lacking in important nutrients too.
Putting It All Together
OK, with all of that to digest (pun!), how can one manage all of this into a simple vegan diet? This is what I recommend (again, as a non-nutritionist — don’t just take my advice, research it):
- Eat lots of beans/legumes, nuts and seeds. I recommend a good serving of these with both lunch and dinner. Maybe even add some nuts/seeds to your breakfast. Good examples for lunch/dinner: lentil soups or curries, black bean tacos, three-bean chili, tempeh stir-fry with veggies, black bean or white bean soup. There are countless examples.
- Eat lots of green veggies, with other color veggies as well. A big salad every day with lots of greens, as well as red and yellow veggies, mushrooms, nuts, beans and seeds … and you’re getting a ton of nutrition into one meal. Add some bean soup that has some greens cooked into it, and it’s an amazing meal. If you cook stir-frys, chilis, soups, curries, tacos or any other kind of meal, just add greens and other colored veggies into them. Or have a big helping of steamed greens as a side dish.
- Whole grains and fruits are good too. Brown rice, corn tortillas, quinoa, flourless whole-grain breads and cereal, black rice, and more can be added to any meal for taste and nutrition. Fruits with breakfast or as a snack or dessert are incredibly nutritious.
- Soymilk and/or supplement. For things like B12, calcium, etc. that I listed above, you can get a lot of it in fortified soymilk (I drink about a glass or two daily, again with my Ezekiel cereal or protein shake). But if you don’t like that, you can supplement with B12, calcium, and/or a DHA/EPA supplement.
If you find some recipes with these general guidelines — experiment to find a balance that works for you — you’ll find that a healthy vegan diet is not that difficult. It might take learning some new recipes, adjusting your taste buds a bit, trying some new foods, but it’s a lot of fun to learn to do all of this. And the benefits in health are incredible.
Nutrition is just one part of fitness and health — a super important part, but not the only one. I’ve experimented with lots of kinds of exercise — from running marathons (and one ultramarathon) to Crossfit, the Goruck Challenge, weight training, sports, swimming, bicycling, yoga and more. I’m not an expert at any of them, just a learner.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Strength training is important. Lots of vegans overlook strength training, and they get weak, and people blame veganism. No, it’s just that if you don’t stress the muscle with some kind of resistance, it gets less strong. I personally like lifting barbells (squats, deadlifts, bench), but there are lots of different ways to do it. Bodyweight strength exercises like pushups, squats, lunges and chinups are amazing, and of course if your gym just has dumbbells and weight machines, that works too. If you want to get hard core, you can do Olympic barbell exercises and throw heavy stuff like logs and tires around, and drag sleds and stuff. All of it is fun, and will make you strong.
- Cardio is also important. You don’t have to spend a bunch of time on cardio machines (boring, imo), but getting your body moving is good for the heart and brain and muscles. A good brisk walk is a decent option, but I also like to go for short runs (2-4 miles), do sprint intervals, ride a bike, play some basketball. Swimming is also amazing. Whatever you find fun, do that, but just find a way to get moving regularly.
- Mixing in some yoga is amazing. I am not an experienced yogi by any means (you should see my flexibility, it’s laughable), but I find yoga to be such an incredible mix of flexibility, strength and mindfulness training that I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend it. A couple times a week would be the minimum to see any benefits, though more is of course better if you have the time and energy.
How would I mix all these together? Whatever works for your life is best, but here’s a sample schedule that I might follow:
- Sunday: Run and yoga
- Monday: Squat & bench press workout
- Tuesday: Run and yoga
- Wednesday: Sports and/or biking
- Thursday: Deadlift and chinups
- Friday: Run and yoga
- Saturday: Rest day, maybe go for a walk
That would get you pretty strong and fit, I think. Of course, you should work your way up to this, starting with bodyweight strength training if you’ve never lifted weights, and getting a trainer to help you with form if you start lifting barbells. Go to an intro yoga class if you haven’t done that. Start with walking and then mix in some jogging with your walking if you don’t run. And of course, if you have any health risks, get checked out by a doctor, don’t just follow the advice of some guy on the Internet. :)
In the end, mixing up your exercise and easing into it is a good idea, as is eating lots of beans, nuts, seeds, greens, colored veggies, whole grains and fruits. With a plan like this, you’ll have a hard time not becoming strong and healthy as a vegan.
Questions & Answers
Some questions you might have:
Q: Why bother becoming vegan at all if you have to worry about these nutrients?
A: Vegans all have different reasons, but my reason is just to not participate in hurting and killing sentient beings if I can help it. I can be happy and healthy and enjoy delicious food without hurting animals (to the extent that I’m able), so why should I eat them?
Q: Isn’t supplementing unnatural?
A: Perhaps. I’m not as concerned about following the naturalistic fallacy — most of us do things that aren’t “natural” all the time, from using computers and cars to eating pizza and using deodorant. And the truth is, it’s a small inconvenience compared to what we do to animals.
Q: Isn’t soy bad for you?
A: Nope. I did an article on this myth years ago. I’ve been eating soy several times a week (sometimes daily) for a decade without any health problems. I prefer to eat less processed versions of soy, like tempeh (fermented soy beans) or edamame (green soy beans). But I have found no problem with tofu or soymilk on a regular basis (in moderation of course). I don’t recommend overdoing soy protein powder or soy meat substitutes, but here again, moderation is the key.
Q: What if I (or someone I know) got really unhealthy as a vegan?
A: It’s possible, especially if you didn’t eat good amounts of protein, calcium, iron, B12, and things like that. It’s also possible to get really unhealthy as a non-vegan. Lots of people eat diets that don’t have the right amount of nutrients, so educate yourself and do a bit of experimenting. One common problem is just eating raw plants, mostly raw vegetables, without getting all the nutrients you need. For taste, not getting enough fats or protein is a common problem, as is not getting enough umami flavor (the taste of grilled meat) — grilled mushrooms are a good way to get umami.