Happy 2013! There is nothing like a brand new year to inspire health-related resolutions. And while it’s tempting to resolve to make all kinds of big changes, sometimes a few little tweaks here and there are all we vegans really need. Here are ten ideas for vegans—mostly easy ways to fine-tune your diet and lifestyle. One of two of them might help to make your new year a little bit healthier.
1. Give some attention to calcium. It’s simple enough to get enough calcium from plant foods, but many vegans fall short because they just aren’t paying attention. Make sure you are consuming at least three cups per day of some combination of calcium-set tofu, fortified plant milks or juices, or calcium-rich leafy greens like kale or collards.
2. Lose the “supplements are bad” mindset. Take appropriate supplements of vitamin B12 (about 25 micrograms per day) and vitamin D (about 600 IUs per day). If you don’t regularly eat sea veggies or iodized salt, take a supplement of iodine, too. I’ll leave the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA up to you. (I take them, though.)
3. Embrace beans. Vegans consume less protein than omnivores, which is fine—we usually get enough and that’s all that matters. Unfortunately, protein has developed a little bit of a bad reputation among some health conscious vegans, as though eating more protein is actually bad for you. It isn’t. Protein is good for your muscles and bones, and it can also be very satisfying and satiating. Soyfoods are especially protein-rich, and they also help to fight cancer and are good for your skin. But all beans are wonderful foods—healthful little packages that combine protein with fiber and the kind of carbs that boost good bacteria in your gut. No other foods can make that claim.
4. Eat whole fruits and vegetables. A little juice is okay, but forget about those juice fasts and cleanses. They’re a scam. They do not improve your nutrition, your digestion or help to “detoxify” your body. (There is, in fact, no such thing as a “detox” diet.)
5. Eat raw and cooked vegetables. Phytochemicals in cruciferous veggies (the ones in the cabbage family) work best to reduce disease risk when these foods are consumed raw. The ones in tomatoes and carrots work best when these foods are cooked. You don’t need to micromanage this—it’s fine to eat some raw carrots and some cooked kale. Just know that neither all raw nor all cooked is the way to go with vegetables.
6. Eat healthy fats. Include a serving or two of nuts in your daily menu. Choose a daily source of essential omega-3 fats—walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, or canola oil. Use vegetable oils with a light hand, and choose extra-virgin olive oil most of the time.
7. Make use of acidic marinades in your cooking—those made from lemon or lime juice, tomatoes, or vinegar. In baked and roasted foods, they help to inhibit formation of compounds—called AGEs—that may raise risk for chronic disease. Acidic ingredients also lower the glycemic index of carb-rich foods, producing more gradual and gentle fluctuations in blood glucose levels.
8. If you drink, choose red wine most of the time. There isn’t a whole lot of research on which types of alcohol are better (or less bad, depending on how you look at it) than others, but red wine provides resveratrol, a compound that may reduce chronic disease risk. It’s also the beverage of choice in traditional healthful Mediterranean diets. If you drink, you might as well choose what healthy people drink.
9. Enjoy fun food fearlessly. You aren’t going to be healthy if you live on vegan cookies and potato chips. But you won’t be unhealthy if you eat these foods some of the time. It’s how you eat most of the time that counts. So build your diet around healthy whole plant foods, but don’t be afraid to enjoy some treats.
10. Choose foods for health rather than weight reduction. Don’t let the new year be a reason to starve yourself to get down to some weight that you’ve never been able to maintain in the past. Instead, eat (mostly) whole plant foods, and find an exercise program that you enjoy. Honor hunger and satiety signals—eating when you are physically hungry and stopping when you are full. If you are exercising, eating a healthy diet, and truly paying attention to hunger, your weight is probably where it belongs.