Last summer, vegan blogger Jordan Younger (formerly known as the Blonde Vegan; now the Balanced Blonde) made waves when she announced she would no longer maintain a vegan diet after she’d become addicted to juice cleanses and stopped getting her period. Younger said she had orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating that can become increasingly restrictive, leading to nutrient deficiencies and social isolation as a person plans their life around avoiding unhealthy food. She released a book this month documenting how veganism led to extreme dieting in her pursuit of better health.
Orthorexia is recognized by the National Eating Disorders Association but not the American Psychological Association — it’s not in the group’s diagnostic manual that’s used by clinicians and insurers. Some experts believe it’s a form of anorexia or obsessive-compulsive disorder, not its own distinct condition, but many people identify with it nonetheless.
Younger’s experience is, of course, specific to her, but you’ve likely heard nutritionists warn against cutting out entire food groups if your goal is to lose weight, because such restrictions could lead to binges or deficiencies. Many nutritionists are more likely to support veganism than they would a diet like Atkins, because the decision can be philosophical and you can get the nutrients elsewhere. Here's how they advise their vegan patients on how to stay well-nourished and maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Get to know your protein
Beans, lentils, and peas fall under an umbrella known as pulses and are high in protein, and pea protein powder is a vegan-friendly option for smoothies, says Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., contributing nutrition editor for Health magazine and author of Slim Down Now. She's less enthusiastic about mock meats like tofu, tempeh, and seitan, which can be highly processed (but if you went vegan for ethical reasons, that might be less of a concern).
Nuts and seeds and their respective butters also have protein, but Sass thinks of them more as plant-based fats since they contain more of that nutrient. Either way, they’re great for vegans — especially when eaten with whole grains, a combo that stabilizes blood-sugar levels and helps you feel full, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. Know your proteins and eat them often. “I encourage protein at every meal and even during snacks,” Taub-Dix says.
Get the mix right
“When people aren’t aware of how to balance their vegan diet properly, they often forgo adequate plant sources of protein and eat way too many carbs,” says Taub-Dix. Quinoa has a surprising eight grams of protein per cup, but it’s still way higher in carbohydrates (39 grams). So it’s not enough to eat loads of quinoa with edamame, or a plate of pasta with some vegetables. “Combinations of produce, pulses, whole grains, and nuts and seeds provide a nice balance of macro and micro nutrients,” Sass says. In other words: Round out your edamame and quinoa with bell peppers and almonds, or add cannellini beans and pine nuts or olive oil to your pasta. And remember that produce includes avocados and fruit, too, not just veggies.
Mind your B's and D's
Vegans need to make sure they’re getting enough calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc, and iron — nutrients that are more commonly found in animal products. It's possible to meet your needs with food, but supplements might be in order. “For example, B12 is only found in nutritional yeast and B12-fortified foods and vitamin D is only found in mushrooms,” Sass says. “Any vegan who isn't sure if she or he is getting enough should consider consulting with a dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets.” She also recommends the book Becoming Vegan, which was written by two registered dietitians.
Plan ahead for group outings
Going out to dinner with friends? Taub-Dix says to try as best as you can to let your preferences be known, but if someone else picked the place, it’s worth checking out the menu online to minimize surprises at the table. Sass recommends suggesting Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern restaurants, which usually have entrées with pulses as the main event. And it can’t hurt to throw a vegan restaurant on the list — who knows, they might be down!
Don’t harp on restrictions
In terms of a keeping healthy mind-set, Sass says it’s best to focus on what you do eat rather than what you don't; after all, a vegan diet can be incredibly satisfying. But if you feel like you're spending a lot of time and energy worrying about food and feeling stressed about your limitations, you may be taking it too far, she says. As Taub-Dix puts it, “You should be able to incorporate your diet into your lifestyle, not have to change your life for your diet.”
How you feel while eating this way is also key. “You should feel well nourished, energized, full, and satisfied after meals,” Sass says. “If you feel lethargic, hungry all the time, or lacking in energy, something is off.” That's when it’s time to talk with someone. “If you’re unsure about the quality of your diet, whatever it is, consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist and be sure to report uncomfortable, unwanted symptoms to your doctor,” Taub-Dix says.