Thinking about going vegan? Here's what you should know first

Considering going vegan? Although it may feel like chic new plant-based restaurants and charismatic vegan influencers are popping up everywhere these days, very few people in the United States consider themselves vegans. In fact, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, only three percent of Americans identify as vegans, up just slightly from two percent in 2012.

There are many reasons why people choose to go vegan, including concerns about animal welfare and the environment and a wish to improve their own health. A vegan community on social media and an uptick in vegan food options both while dining out and while grocery shopping may make this way of eating seem more attainable than ever before. Medical News Today noted that there are many potential health benefits to going vegan, including improved cardiovascular health, weight loss, and a reduced risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes. But removing all animal foods from your diet means it may be difficult to get enough of certain nutrients, and a healthy vegan diet requires some forethought and planning.

If you're considering going vegan, there are a few things you should keep in mind and several steps you can take to make your transition as smooth as possible.

If you're going vegan, you'll need to get bloodwork done regularly

One concern many people have when transitioning to veganism is whether they'll be able to get all the vitamins and minerals they need. According to The Conversation, four common nutritional deficiencies among vegans are vitamin B12, calcium, iodine, and iron. Medical News Today also identified vitamin D, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids as nutrients of concern for those on a vegan diet.

Just how common are nutritional deficiencies among vegans? Research conducted by the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS) found that 28 percent of vegans (and 13 percent of vegetarians) surveyed had at least one diagnosed deficiency.

Carefully planning your diet and taking supplements can prevent these deficiencies, but, according to health coach Shana Robinson, it's still a good idea to monitor your health via regular bloodwork. She explained that getting labs done before going vegan is particularly important. "You definitely want to find out if you have any gut-related issues like celiac disease, and also to check your iron and thyroid levels. Gut issues like celiac disease make it harder for the body to absorb iron and B12, among many other nutrients."

You'll need to take a vitamin B12 supplement if you're going vegan

When it comes to nutrients that may be missing from a vegan diet, vitamin B12 is at the top of the list. Registered dietitian Megan Wong explained to Health Digest, "Vegans may have a hard time getting enough vitamin B12, since all natural sources are animal-based. You'll need to rely on fortified foods or supplements containing B12." According to Wong, commonly fortified foods include nutritional yeast, milk alternatives, soy-based meat alternatives, and cereals.

Also known as cobalamin, as noted by Healthline, vitamin B12 plays many important roles in the body, including assisting with red blood cell creation, converting food into energy, and boosting mood. Harvard Medical School pointed out that deficiency may be slow to appear because the liver can store vitamin B12. But once it does, it can produce a number of unpleasant and dangerous symptoms, including numbness and tingling, anemia, fatigue, and weakness.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is very common in vegans. According to WebMD, research shows that as many as 92 percent of vegans (compared to 66 percent of vegetarians and only 5 percent of omnivores) are deficient in this nutrient. So, if you're going vegan, you may want to pay extra attention to your B12 intake.

Going vegan also means you'll most likely need to take a vitamin D supplement

According to Healthline, vitamin D is an important fat-soluble vitamin that can be obtained both through food and exposure to sunlight. It can affect almost every cell in the body, helping to turn certain genes on and off. It plays an important role in bone health, mood, and cancer prevention. Unfortunately, it's a vitamin that many people don't get enough of.

Registered dietitian Trista Best at Balance One Supplements told Health Digest, "Vitamin D is often found in fortified animal foods like dairy products. It is also naturally occurring in many types of fish. All of these are unwelcome on a vegan diet, which means supplementation or increased sunlight may be necessary." She recommended taking a supplement alongside a healthy plant-based fat such as avocado to help your body absorb the vitamin D.

But vegans aren't the only ones who could benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement. Even though omnivores may get some vitamin D from their diet, Mercy Medical Center reported that 42 percent of all Americans are deficient in this crucial nutrient, regardless of the diet they follow. So, whether you're going vegan or not, it probably wouldn't hurt to add more vitamin D to your diet.

Getting enough iron and actually absorbing it can be difficult when going vegan

According to WebMD, iron is an essential mineral and a vital component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that allows them to transport oxygen throughout the body. Premenopausal adult women need about 18 mg of iron daily, while men and post-menopausal women need only 8 mg. Iron deficiency anemia is extremely common, affecting approximately one in five American women, though that number goes up to one in two for pregnant women, according to WebMD. Reportedly, only about three percent of men experience an iron deficiency.

Vegans are at particular risk because they're limited in the type of iron they can consume. As health coach Shana Robinson explained to Health Digest, "There are two types of iron — heme and non-heme iron. Heme is derived from animal sources and is more readily absorbed by the body. Non-heme sources are derived from vegetables and legumes, and best paired with a source of vitamin C to make it more bioavailable to the body."

Robinson believes that, while it's possible to get enough iron solely from plant-based foods without using supplements, you'll need to consume quite a lot to ensure you absorb an adequate amount when going vegan. She noted that this may be particularly difficult for those with thyroid or gut issues, as these can affect the body's ability to absorb iron.

If you're going vegan, you'll need to make sure you're getting enough calories

We sometimes think of them as the enemy, but calories provide the energy we need to survive and not getting enough can be very dangerous for our health. Because many of the staples of a vegan diet are high-volume, low-calorie foods, vegans are at greater risk for accidentally under-eating. As health and wellness researcher and coach at Tons of Goodness Kathryn Schwab told Health Digest, "Many people switch to a vegan diet and only eat foods like leafy greens and broccoli. While these are packed with nutrients, they are very low in calories and won't provide you with the energy you need to fuel your body." She explained that, in order to thrive on a vegan diet, it's important to include healthy but higher-calorie foods, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes, including soy (though you may want to think twice before eating soy).

Just how many fewer calories does the average vegan eat? According to a 2014 study led by Dr. Peter Clarys and published in the journal Nutrients, vegan participants ate an average of 600 fewer calories than their omnivore counterparts.

You may want to use a nutrition-tracking app for a while after going vegan

Because following a poorly planned vegan diet may inadvertently lead to not getting enough calories or certain nutrients, it's often beneficial to track your eating in an app like MyFitnessPal, Lifesum, or Cronometer. As health and wellness researcher and coach at Tons of Goodness Kathryn Schwab told Health Digest, "This will help you to get an estimate of your protein, fat, carbohydrate, and calorie intake while also keeping an eye on your mood and energy level. This can give you a good estimate as to which areas of your diet are sufficient and which are deficient."

Schwab noted that, while it can be very helpful as you transition to a new way of eating after going vegan, a nutrition-tracking app is not something you'll need to use long-term. If you have a history of disordered eating, however, it's probably best to stay away from nutrition-tracking apps altogether. Investigations conducted by BBC News found that using such apps exacerbated unhealthy behaviors and negative relationships with food among some susceptible users.

When going vegan, you should gradually increase your fiber intake

Because they contain many fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, most vegan diets are packed with fiber. In fact, a 2014 study led by Dr. Peter Clarys and published in the journal Nutrients found that vegan participants consumed an average of 41 grams of fiber a day, compared to 34 grams among vegetarians and 27 grams among omnivores.

While most Americans need to increase their fiber intake, Healthline noted that you can definitely get too much of a good thing, especially if fiber intake increases suddenly. Excessive fiber consumption can lead to many unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, flatulence, diarrhea, and (ironically) constipation.

The key to avoiding these issues when going vegan, says registered dietitian Kristen Carli, is going slow. She told Health Digest, "I recommend when eating beans or lentils to start small and gradually increase over time. For example, start with 1/4 cup of legumes per day for a week or two. Then try to increase this amount to 1/2 cup per day for a few weeks. Then increase from there."

It's important to drink plenty of water if you're going vegan

If you're going to be eating more fiber by going vegan, you may need to up your water intake as well. That's because both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber need water to work their magic, as noted by SFGate. Soluble fiber absorbs water, creating a gel-like substance that slows the rate at which food moves through your digestive system. This can make you feel fuller longer and slows the absorption of carbohydrates, preventing sudden high blood sugar levels. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stools and helps them move more quickly through the colon, preventing constipation. But water is needed to move these larger stools along.

So, do you really need to drink eight glasses of water per day? Well, the Mayo Clinic recommends women get about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids a day, while men should aim for 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) daily. In addition to a higher fiber intake, other factors may increase your need for hydration, including strenuous exercise, hot temperatures, and pregnancy.

How do you know if you're getting enough fluids? According to Healthline, there are many ways to tell that you're dehydrated. Beyond thirst, signs you need to up your water intake include dark yellow urine, a dry mouth, constipation, tiredness, and headache.

Where you get your protein from matters when you're going vegan

According to WebMD, protein is used to build and repair muscle and produce enzymes and hormones, and it's also an "important building block" of bone, blood, and skin.

But figuring out where to get protein can be tricky when you're going vegan. As registered dietitian Kristen Carli explained, "I often see new vegans remove the meat from their plate without replacing it with a source of protein. Seek out plant-based sources of protein such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains." She doesn't recommend relying solely on soy or highly processed meat alternatives.

Getting complete protein is also important. Nutritionist Lisa Richards told Health Digest, "Protein is made of amino acids, of which there are 20. Nine of those amino acids are not made by the body and must be sourced through food. Any food that contains all nine ... is considered a complete protein. Animal proteins are naturally complete ... while most plant sources are not." She highlighted soy and quinoa as complete and suggested combining certain other foods to get all essential amino acids. Richards recommended pairs like whole grain brown rice and black beans, whole wheat bread and peanut butter, and pasta and peas.

If you're going vegan, don't shy away from plant-based fats

Although they often get a bad rep, fats play a critical role in any diet, including a vegan one. As health and wellness researcher and coach at Tons of Goodness Kathryn Schwab explained, "You will want to include plant-based fats like those found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconut oil. These contain fatty acids that make up our cell membranes and help with brain function. We also need them for the production of energy and hormones." That's certainly something to keep in mind when going vegan.

Schwab also pointed out that many of the vitamins and micronutrients in food are fat soluble, which means they need fat to be absorbed. According to Healthline, fat-soluble nutrients include vitamins A, D, E, and K.

There are four broad categories of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally considered healthiest. However, where fats come from may also impact their healthiness. Research conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that monounsaturated fats from plant sources reduced risk of heart disease, while the same type of fat from animal sources did not.

You may need to take a DHA supplement after going vegan

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are three types of omega-3 fats: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The first is found largely in plant foods, while the others are found in fish and seafood. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003 found that although the body can convert dietary ALA to EPA and DHA, the process is very "inefficient." Approximately five to ten percent of ALA can be converted to EPA, and only two to five percent can be converted to DHA.

As a result of not directly consuming EPA and DHA from animal sources and the body's difficulty converting ALA to the other omega-3s, Healthline pointed out that many vegans are deficient in DHA. Deficiency can have negative effects on both brain function and mental health and can adversely affect fetal brain development.

Fortunately, a 2008 study led by Dr. Linda M. Arterburn and published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association concluded that DHA supplements made from vegan-friendly algae were as effective as salmon at raising DHA levels.

If you're going vegan, you'll need to read labels carefully to avoid hidden animal ingredients

It may seem obvious which foods are vegan-friendly and which aren't, but many new vegans discover that processed foods, with their long lists of confusing ingredient names, often contain hidden animal products. Yes, unfortunately, there are surprising things that are not vegan. Some wine isn't even vegan!

The Vegetarian Society provides a helpful list of things for people going vegan to look out for in particular types of food. Alcoholic beverages, for example, may include isinglass, a substance made from the swim bladders of fish that makes the alcohol appear clearer. Some jellies contain gelatin, derived from bones and tissues of cows and pigs, and some red-colored foods — particularly gummy candies — get their bright scarlet hue from carmine, a substance derived from a particular species of insect.

To make it easier for consumers, some food and non-food products carry the "Certified Vegan" logo from Vegan Action. In addition to the obvious requirement of no animal ingredients, this certification program has a number of other guidelines, including no product testing on animals and no use of animal genes in GMO products. There are many food items, however, that are vegan but do not carry this certification.

You can't automatically assume a food is healthy just because it's vegan

Just because something's vegan doesn't automatically mean it's good for you; it simply means it contains no animal products. Registered dietitian Megan Wong told Health Digest, "Always check the nutrition facts and ingredients list — often, vegan products are higher in fat, sodium, sugar, and preservatives so that they'll taste and feel like their non-vegan counterparts."

There are plenty of vegan foods that won't do your health or your waistline any favors. As health coach Shana Robinson explained, "French fries, veggie chips, and frozen fake meats top the list of vegan foods that are replete with calories and chemicals that the body doesn't recognize and can cause things like hormone disruption, inflammation, and weight gain." She recommends sticking to an eating plan that focuses on whole foods and keeps highly processed vegan snacks, desserts, and fake meats to a minimum.

This advice is echoed by Mayo Clinic, which noted that "some vegans rely heavily on processed foods and may not eat a sufficient variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

You don't have to go 100 percent vegan right away... or ever

Depending on why you've decided to go vegan, it may be tempting to dive right in and completely overhaul your diet all at once. Sudden, drastic changes to how you eat, however, can set you up for failure in the long run. Registered dietitian Kristen Carli told Health Digest, "It is common for [new vegans] to adopt a lofty health goal and then not be able to sustain it, leading to guilt and poor self-esteem (which are often behaviors that lead to overeating) ... I remind them that they can make this transition slowly over time." She added, "Even a partial switch to a vegan diet will benefit your health, the environment, and the animals."

According to an article published in Forbes, there are a number of ways to ease into a vegan diet. One option is to start with plant-based meals you already know you like. You can also slowly reduce the amount of meat and animal products you consume, or you can start the process of going vegan by eating vegan for only one meal of the day, such as breakfast.