For some people, the word “vegan” means a person who eats only salad for every meal. For others, it may evoke the image of a svelte Instagrammer holding up a colorful, prettily arranged bowl of vegetables adorned with flower petals.
I’ve been fascinated by veganism for a while, not because of personal moral or ethical reasons, but because I’ve long been curious: How do vegans survive?
I really love food. I’ve always been in a healthy relationship with food, and I eat good stuff that nourishes my body. Sure, I enjoy a bag of chips every now and then, and depending on the occasion, I’ll guzzle down a bottle or two of ginger beer — but in the grand scheme of things, I eat a good variety of food that incorporates as many healthy food groups as possible. My assumption of veganism — based mostly on what I see on Instagram and YouTube — is that practicing it means living a highly restrictive lifestyle.
Here’s why. Recently, a popular raw vegan “influencer” named RawVana was outed as “fake” when she was caught eating fish at a restaurant. With more than 3 million followers, RawVana monetizes her following through weight-loss ebooks, detox kits, and an assortment of other merchandise. It turns out she started eating animal products again because her raw vegan diet led her to become borderline anemic with premenopause symptoms. In July 2018, another YouTuber called Goal Guys told viewers that he almost accidentally starved himself when he tried veganism for 30 days. In the first week, he based his diet on what he thought he should be eating. His meals consisted of spinach, vegan sausages, lots of fruits, a large butternut squash, and avocados. While the lineup of food items sounds healthy, he was missing grains and root vegetables to help him stay full. He simply didn’t know he needed to eat them.
Stories like these have caused me to wonder whether it’s possible to get enough food and nutrients on a strict vegan diet. So I decided to report it out. How much does a person nutritionally need to be a fully functional and chemically balanced human? The information we get about veganism is often commercialized in some way or other, perpetuating myths like detoxing — that’s what your kidneys and liver are for — and how much better you’ll feel. Rather than blindly trust the internet personalities selling me meal plans, I decided to look into the science.
Understanding macros, micros, and energy
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reports that, in general, American adults are not consuming enough “vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber.” If a standard meat-eating person is already struggling nutritionally, how are vegans getting all the vitamins and minerals they need?
Many of us are familiar with the USDA’s food pyramid, which has grains at the bottom, fruit and vegetables on the second tier, topped by fish and dairy, followed by meats, and then fats and oils. What the food pyramid fails to include is the concept of macro- and micronutrition — which is an important concept if you want to be nutritionally balanced.
Macronutrients refers to the “big” nutrients—as in the long chains of molecules that are measured in large quantities in our food. The three basic macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Everything you consume is a combination of at least two macronutrients. Macros are what the body uses for fuel and bodily functions, and they are usually measured in grams.
Micronutrients are trace elements, vitamins, and minerals the body uses to help regulate metabolism, heartbeat, cellular processes, and more. If a person is eating a wide variety of macros, then their range of micros should be well-balanced. Iron, for example, is a micromineral often found in red meat. But it is also present in beans, cashews, and dark-green leafy vegetables such as spinach. According to Harvard Health, a five-ounce steak has the same amount of iron as a cup of pinto beans.
When people jump into veganism, they may have a narrow assumption of what a proper and nutritionally well-balanced vegan meal looks like. Technically, people can live on chips and soda pop and still qualify as vegan. But that often leads to poor nutrition quality. Vegan-friendly foods such as root vegetables, nut butters, grains, and legumes are highly macronutrient-dense. Indian and Mediterranean cuisine often packs in macros with these non-meat options, creating a diverse palette with spices and herbs.
If a person is consuming the right amount of calories through the right combination of macros, they should feel full. The high volume of fiber in non-meat macros also aides the length of satiety and provides good fodder for healthy bowel movements.
What about carbs and protein?
Carbohydrates are highly maligned. In truth, there is no such thing as a no-carb diet — unless you’re eating only meat, which is just a combination of protein and fats. One hundred grams of broccoli contain 6.2 grams of carbs. One hundred grams of apple contain 14 grams of carbohydrates. Non-animal-based meals often provide a complete macronutrition profile. The ever-popular avocado toast is a good example of a meal that contains all three macros in one serving: approximately 15.5 grams of carbohydrate, 4.79 grams of protein, and 1.52 grams of fat from one piece regular multigrain toast, and 2.72 grams of protein, 19.9 grams of fat, and 11.6 grams of carbohydrate from an average-sized avocado.
When people consider adopting a vegan diet, there’s often more concern over consuming enough protein than eating enough carbohydrates. But it turns out that a person needs only 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means that if a person weighs 154 pounds, they need 56 grams of protein to function normally. One hundred grams of uncooked rolled oats weigh in at 12.5 grams; the same amount of lentils sits at 28.57 grams of protein.
Other critical nutrients
Vitamin B12, creatine, carnosine, cholecalciferol (vitamin D3), DHA, heme iron, and taurine are seven nutrients that people can’t get from an exclusively plant-based diet, because plants simply don’t have the functionality to produce such nutrients. While the body can synthesize creatine, carnosine, and DHA, vegans often exhibit much lower levels of these micronutrients. These nutrients are often available in high quantities through animal products such as milk, eggs, and fish. While most vegans can get away with not supplementing, the only animal-exclusive product is B12; a boost from store-bought versions are required.
What exactly did I learn from this exercise of trying to figure out how vegans survive?
You don’t really need a massive amount of food if you’re eating the right things. The most successful and healthy vegan eaters tend to consume a wide range of grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. It’s not all just green salads and more green salads.
Understanding how food works can help people understand what the body needs and how to prevent nutrition deficiencies. Veganism has its roots in health, among other things. Proper understanding of how food actually works beyond “eat this because it’s healthy” is helpful. Knowledge of macros and micros in food is important to remaining nutritionally balanced, especially in relation to your weight and height.
As it turns out, vegans can survive just fine.