Getting healthy: Vegan diets not easy but worth time, effort

Garrett Neeae/Daily Mining Gazette Vegan products are seen in the health-food section Econo Foods in Houghton. People with vegan diets have a growing number of options in the Keweenaw, although local dietitians recommend consultation to make sure people are meeting their health needs.

HANCOCK — It requires some work, but a healthy vegan diet is doable, local dietitians said.

Like a basic vegetarian diet, vegan diets exclude meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products and honey, as well as foods containing them.

Like other vegetarian diets, veganism offers health benefits through reduced amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol, as well as more fiber, magnesium, folic acid and nutrients such as vitamins A and C.

Health agencies such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association have called for people to adopt a mostly plant-based diet due to the potential benefits.

It also improves heart health, lowers blood pressure and has shown a reduced risk of some types of cancer, said Meghan Shoup, a dietitian at UP Health — Portage.

“You’re going to be at a healthier weight, most likely, by eating more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts,” she said. “You’ll have better control of blood sugars, a lot of times, depending on how you’re balancing your foods.”

Taking animals out of a diet also means removing some sources of nutrients. The lack of protein and B12 could result in side effects such as weakness and lethargy, while the lack of vitamin D and calcium could create a greater risk of osteoporosis.

B12 can be supplemented through supplements, either in pill form or through an injection, said Kelsae Fitzpatrick, a dietitian at UP Health — Portage.

“Just as long as they’re well-educated about what they’re getting themselves into, because it’s not an easy process,” she said. “There are lots of foods that they need to restrict, and there’s a healthy way to do it and an unhealthy way to do it.”

To provide the calcium needs, people can find fortified foods such as soy milk or almond milk, Shoup said.

Suzanna Severson, registered dietitian nutritionist at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital, said people should aim for 80 to 100 grams of protein in their diet, as well as vitamin C-rich foods with plant sources of iron.

To meet the caloric needs, she said, people should incorporate higher-calorie foods such as avocados, nuts and beans. While there are processed vegan foods available, those are less recommended, as the additional salts and other items may negate some of the health benefits.

Reading labels on products is key, Severson said — not just to check nutrients, but to make sure the product conforms to the diet.

“For example, whey is derived from milk and some food dyes are made from beetles,” she said.

Fitzpatrick said there were some populations for which she would not recommend a vegan diet, such as pregnant women or children, due to their greater nutrient needs.

“It is possible, but they should make sure they’re highly educated on what they have to do to meet their needs,” she said.

Restricting diets can often drive people to eat the same types of foods every day. Instead, Shoup said, people should rotate through a number of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins to get the most nutrients.

For people new to veganism, the dietitians suggested starting with vegetarianism, then easing out of eggs, milk and honey. Some, including Shoup’s sister, adopt a “flexatarian” approach, in which they restrict foods on several days a week.

“If people like the idea of it, but they’re afraid to commit, even taking a meatless Monday or something like that and starting like that is still going to give you some of those health benefits and expose you to what that lifestyle would be like,” Shoup said.

Severson also recommended finding local groups who are practicing vegans or supportive of the choice. The Copper Country Vegans group holds monthly meetings and potlucks, usually at the Portage Lake District Library. Upcoming events are posted on its Facebook page.

A list of vegan-friendly stores and restaurants in the U.P. is also available at