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Ask Health Coach Maria: Should I Be a Part-Time Vegan?

July 4, 2014

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Have a wellness question for Health Coach Maria? Ask her here.  

After watching a few different food documentaries, I am moving towards becoming a vegan, but making a total switch seems hard, Do you think I can still reap a lot of the benefits of veganism by just eating animal products more sparingly?

—Stacy, MD

There is no doubt that anyone and everyone can benefit from eating more unprocessed plant foods. Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all packed with the exact nutrients our body needs. 

A diet high in whole plant-based foods reduces your risk of disease, shrinks your waistline, and is necessary for proper digestion. 

Now, should plants be the only thing you eat? Not necessarily. 

Everybody’s body is different. We each have our own biochemistry, tastes, and preferences, and while some people can thrive on a vegan diet, others find complete abstinence from animal food unnecessary. That’s what bio-individuality is all about. 

When becoming completely vegan, there are a few things you need to be cognizant of; otherwise, you can end up doing more harm than good to your health. 

Firstly, you need to consume an adequate amount of complete protein each and every day. What does that mean exactly? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and most foods contain some combination of 20 different essential amino acids. Animal foods are super high protein because they contain all of the amino acids, while only some plant based-foods do, like quinoa or hemp.  Nuts, beans, seeds, and grains are all sources of incomplete protein. 

If following a vegan or vegetarian diet, you can “create” a complete plant protein by combining complementary incomplete proteins. For example, whole grains and legumes compensate for the amino acids that the other food lacks, so a meal of brown rice and beans would deliver the complete spectrum of amino acids. As a vegan, you need to ensure you’re getting a complete protein through either single or combined foods.

Additionally, you’ll need to supplement with vitamin B12, which is absent from all but a very few plant-foods, and often in quantities that are too small to be adequate.

Food journalist Mark Bittman, a visiting teacher at Integrative Nutrition, has proposed a “vegan before 6” plan, in which you abstain from all animal products until dinnertime. 

This makes sense for many people, who are either not ready or not willing to eschew all animal products, but still want to improve their health.  

I think it’s a great idea to limit your animal food to once a day max, but you certainly could be more flexible with the timing of you non-vegan meal. If you want an omelet for brunch, have it, just make sure that dinner is a veggie dish. 

I also like the idea of using animal products more like a condiment instead of the main dish. So, a enjoy a sprinkle of cheese instead of cheese ravioli, or a 3-4 ounce piece of fish instead of the large restaurant portions which can be double and triple that size. 

By becoming a “part-time” vegan in which the majority of your meals are whole food- and plant-based, you should still be able to see a shift in your health and you won’t have to be as concerned about consuming adequate amounts of B12 or protein. With a more flexible approach, you’ll also have an easier time ordering at a restaurant when you go out with friends. As with many things in life, there are great benefits to avoiding “all or nothing” black-and-white thinking when it comes to food. 

Has anyone tried Mark’s “Vegan Before 6” diet? If so, leave a comment below and let us know what changes you saw. 

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at healthcoachmaria@wellnesstoday.com.