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Ask a Vegan: How Do You Get Protein and Calcium?

Readers inquire about what it's like to be a vegan.

I'd like to start by saying thank you so much for all of the comments and emails in response to this column. Please keep them coming! Below, I've answered two of the questions that I've received from readers over the past couple of weeks. 

"What's the difference between vegan and vegetarian?"

Vegan is a type of vegetarianism, just as Catholic is a type of Christianity—though these diets have nothing to do with religion. That was just an analogy.

While vegetarians avoid meat products, such as chicken, beef, pork and so on, vegans take it a step further by avoiding all animal products, including eggs and dairy. There are also pescatarians, who eat fish but avoid other animals, and a few other types of vegetarians. Some definitions of veganism require avoiding all animal products, whether related to food, clothing, furniture or other things. Vegetarians generally stick to the food choices. 

While the diets were traditionally followed for ethical reasons—mainly, the treatment of animals—they have grown in popularity in the past decade due to reported health benefits.

It is becoming popular to refer to veganism and vegetarianism as a plant-based diet, as "vegan" often has a social stigma attached. For more on this, check out a few of my favorite books—"Crazy Sexy Diet," by Kris Carr and "Veganist," by Kathy Freston. "Forks Over Knives" is a very comprehensive documentary covering the benefits of a plant-based diet.

"I always wondered how vegans still manage to get a good calcium and protein intake since eggs, milk products and meat are out of the question. Do you have to make a conscious effort to make sure that whatever you eat over the course of each day gives your body what it needs? Or do you just take vitamin supplements to help out with that?" 

First and foremost, I don't take supplements (except Vitamin D). I've done enough research to know that a balanced diet provides everything our bodies need to thrive.

That said, I was so worried about this before I tried going vegan. Turns out, I actually get more calcium now than I ever did as a dairy consumer.

There are forms of seaweed—I love wakame, which you've probably tried in miso soup—that contains 10 times more calcium than a glass of milk. There is also calcium in almonds, kale, spinach, collard greens, sesame seeds, tahini, broccoli, celery, papaya, flax seeds, oranges and countless other normal, everyday foods. 

When I first stopped drinking milk, I paid close attention to my calcium intake. Within weeks, I realized I was getting plenty, if not too much. 

As for protein, as an avid runner, I was really concerned. I was halfway through training for a half-marathon when I went vegetarian, and waited until after the race to go completely meatless.

Looking back, I laugh at my concerns. A balanced vegan diet provides more than enough protein. My main sources are nuts—preferably almonds, tempeh (if you're not familiar with it, you're missing out!), quinoa, seeds—my favorites are hemp and sunflower, peas, broccoli, spinach, asparagus and a million other foods. You might have to go to a health food store for the tempeh, but everything else is generally available at large, normal grocery stores.

As most Americans actually take in more protein than they need, I feel confident in my consumption. I don't get as much as everyone else, but most people get more than they actually need.

If you're eating meat with every meal, more than once a day, you're likely among the excessive-protein crew. I can feel a difference when I'm not getting enough—I tend to get spacey, unable to concentrate—and that's when I reach for more protein. One of the joys of being vegan is being able to read all of your body's clues.

For more on vegetarian protein, especially for athletes, check out "No Meat Athlete." Author Matt Frazier compiled a comprehensive protein guide. It's a great resource for vegetarian athletes and vegans in general.

And to answer the question on everyone's mind: No, I don't like tofu. 

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