We tackle your top concerns about going meat- and dairy-free. Interested in trying a vegan diet? Sign up for our 21-Day Vegan Challenge here.
1. How will I get enough protein—and what’s enough, anyway?
It’s easier than you think: Lentils, tofu, beans, whole grains, peanut butter—the list of protein-packed plant foods is long and delicious. Besides, “Most people overestimate how much protein they really need,” says nutritionist Sharon Palmer. She and other experts recommend aiming for about 1 gram of protein per 2.2 pounds of body weight (on average), or about 55 to 61 grams for a 135-pound woman—a number you’ll easily hit by eating at least one protein-rich plant food at each meal and snack. Lentils, for example, pack 18 grams protein per cup; tofu weighs in at 20 grams per cup. Try spreading hummus on a veggie wrap, sprinkling nuts on oatmeal, and snacking on peanut butter.
2. I’ve heard vegan diets are missing complete proteins. What are those, and does it matter if I have them in my diet?
If a protein is complete, it has an adequate balance of all nine essential amino acids. Most plant foods fall short on one or two, with exceptions such as quinoa and soy. Amino acids combine to form proteins, but packing all nine into every bite isn’t essential. As long as you eat a balanced diet with a mixture of whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, you’ll get the amino acids you need throughout the day and week.
3. Should I worry about anemia or low iron?
Vegans are no more at risk of iron-deficiency anemia than omnivores, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Plenty of plant foods are rich in the mineral, including beans, tofu, whole grains, and fortified cereals. One thing to keep in mind: Your body doesn’t absorb plant-sourced iron (called non-heme) as easily as iron from meat, so you may want to aim for more than the Food and Drug Administration’s 18 mg recommended dietary allowance. “Research suggests premenopausal women may need as much as 32 mg,” Palmer says. But, with a cup of boiled soybeans delivering 9 mg, you won’t have to try hard to hit that mark.
4. Where will my calcium and vitamin D come from?
Milk, of course! Soy, almond, rice, hemp—most of the major brands of plant-based milks come fortified with calcium and vitamin D in amounts similar to that found in cow’s milk. Some research suggests these added minerals and vitamins may be just as bioavailable, or easily absorbed by your body, as they are in cow’s milk. Green, leafy veggies and tofu also contain calcium, and our plan includes plenty of both!
5. Do flax and walnuts make up for the omega-3s I’ll miss from fish?
Yes and no. Those foods are loaded with ALA, one type of omega-3 fatty acid that has healthy anti-inflammatory properties and that your body can convert to EPA and DHA, two other omegas proven beneficial for heart and brain function that are plentiful in fish such as salmon and sardines. Unfortunately, we tend to convert only low amounts of the ALA we eat, so Palmer recommends eating more ALA-rich foods (such as hemp and chia seeds), as well as taking vegan EPA and DHA made from marine algae, which is where a salmon gets its omegas. Aim for at least 250 mg of DHA and EPA per day; if you find a supplement that contains more than 600 mg, it’s OK to take it just two to three days a week while on the Vegan Challenge. Afterward, you can skip supplements altogether if you eat omega-3–rich fish like salmon or sardines twice a week.
See a complete list of our Vegan Recipes
6. How much soy is too much?
Many vegan-friendly foods contain soy, which is rich in phytoestrogens, compounds that, in high amounts, may interfere with normal hormone levels and be linked to certain cancers. But you needn’t sweat whole or minimally processed soy: In fact, moderate intake (1–2 servings a day, and maybe up to 3 with some foods) of edamame, tofu, soy milk, or soy-based veggie burgers is A-OK, Palmer says. The American Cancer Society says such foods appear safe for breast-cancer survivors, including those who have had estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer. But you may want to watch your intake of processed soy-based protein powders, supplements, or energy bars, which can deliver many times the amount of soy protein that you could otherwise eat naturally.
7. How do I deal with cravings for butter, cheese, or meat?
Take a deep breath and think about all the incredible things you can eat versus the relatively few you’re not eating, suggests Palmer. Making a favorite recipe by swapping in vegan ingredients for dairy and meat can also go a long way in feeding a craving. (Veggie lasagna with soy cheese, anyone?) For a butter substitute, try avocado or nut butter. When cooking, use extra-virgin olive oil or another unrefined plant oil. And if you’re baking, or just craving a buttery flavor, dairy-free spreads made of oil blends, such as Earth Balance, come pretty close to tasting like the real thing. Finally, do a reality check: Remind yourself why you wanted to adopt a plant-based diet in the first place. “You’re adding years to your life; you’re taking care of the planet,” says Katz. And know that over time, those cravings will naturally fade away and may even cease entirely.