Ever knocked back a multivitamin with your morning latte? Or felt super virtuous after opting for an organic vegan doughnut? News flash: you might be guilty of a dietary faux pas or deux.
It’d be nice to think we have healthy eating all figured out—but with endless and often contradictory recommendations coming at us from every direction, the occasional misstep is inevitable. Even the most health-conscious people can fall prey to these surprising nutrition traps.
Trap #1: You fear fruit, because sugar
Turn down that sugar-bomb doughnut (even if it is vegan and organic) and reach for fruit, which is full of fiber, vitamins and minerals galore. An apple might contain as much sugar as a doughnut, but the difference is in the type of sugar. Compared to refined sugars, natural fruit sugars are released more slowly into your bloodstream. That means an apple will leave you more satisfied and less likely to overeat than a doughnut.
Plus, many studies have demonstrated the powerful health benefits of fresh fruit consumption. A recent seven-year study involving half a million Chinese adults was a powerful endorsement of fruit for the prevention of diabetes. Just don’t skip the peels (when edible), as they’re an appealing source of fiber and antioxidants.
Trap #2: You take your multi with coffee
Gulping down a multivitamin with your morning caffeine jolt may seem smart—you’re starting your day with the essentials, right? It’s actually not best idea. Whether it’s coffee or caffeinated tea, that jolt that gets you going on busy mornings also gets your digestive process moving faster.
The result of a revved up digestive system is that everything you consume, including the vitamins and minerals in your multi, moves through your body more quickly. That means you get less time to absorb them before they’re eliminated. Both coffee and tea contain tannins, which can decrease the absorption of iron as well as thiamine (vitamin B1). Calcium may be affected by tannins too, which can decrease the efficiency of calcium absorption. For best results, take your multi well before or at least 30 minutes after you’ve finished your morning coffee or tea.
Trap #3: You choose products based on label claims
Sure, the product screams “gluten free,” “sugar free,” “natural” or “vegan” on the front of its label. But have you read the fine print on the nutritional and ingredients sections—often nestled cagily in a fold or corner? A thorough read through this info might change your mind.
Gluten-free products, for example, can be loaded with added sugar, unhealthy fats or refined ingredients. And just because a product is “low” in something we shouldn’t consume in excess—like sugar or sodium—doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. The product may contain lower amounts than the regular product, but still contain more than you think. For example, a tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce can contain 550 mg of sodium—a quarter of the maximum amount of sodium most people should eat in a day!
Trap #4: You don’t shake your nondairy milk
While nondairy milks like almond, soy, cashew, oat and coconut can be healthy choices (except when they contain added sugar and certain thickeners), these milk alternatives often rely on fortification with nutrients they lack, like calcium and vitamin D. These added nutrients don’t stay in the liquid; they settle to the bottom of the container. So, before you pour your favorite nondairy milk, remember to shake it up!
Trap #5: You don’t feel thirsty, so you figure you’re hydrated
Thirst isn’t necessarily a good gauge of your hydration levels. Other symptoms of dehydration can include less urine or very dark urine, dry mouth, lack of sweat or tears, confusion, feelings of dizziness or light-headedness and even headache. Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day, even when you’re not super thirsty, and be especially aware of your hydration levels when you’re exercising or hanging out in the heat.
You may want to reach for alkaline water: some research suggests that it could hydrate you more. And coconut water is a great natural option to sip during moderate-intensity workouts, as it replenishes electrolytes lost through sweat.
Get your supplement game plan in order!
A balanced plant-based diet comes with benefits like increased antioxidant intake and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. But an unbalanced one can lead to deficiencies in several nutrients—perhaps the biggest nutrition trap of all! For example, some researchers have found more than half of the vegans they assessed were deficient in vitamin B12. Speak with your health care practitioner about possible gaps in your supplement game plan.
It’s almost impossible for vegans to get enough of this vital vitamin, which helps prevent anemia, from diet alone.
Foods to eat: B12-fortified cereals, fortified soy products and nutritional yeast
Supplement: Take 1,000 mcg twice weekly, or a lower dose daily as part of a B-complex supplement.
Our bodies have a harder time absorbing iron from plant sources. If you think you’re deficient (signs include fatigue and pale skin), get your iron levels tested by a health professional.
Foods to eat: iron-fortified breads and cereals, beans and lentils, tofu, dried fruits and dark leafy green veggies
Supplement: The RDA for iron is 1.8 times higher for people on a plant-based diet. From all your food and supplement sources, you should get 14 mg/day (if you’re an adult man or post-menopausal woman) or 32 mg/day (if you’re a pre-menopausal woman).
Important for heart and brain health, essential fatty acids can also be hard to obtain in sufficient quantities from plant foods.
Foods to eat: flaxseeds, chia, walnuts, soybeans, tempeh and tofu
Supplement: Ensure you hit the Adequate Intake through foods and supplements: 1,100 mg/day ALA for women and 1,600 mg/day ALA for men. Consider an additional daily 200 to 300 mg vegan DHA and EPA supplement.
Yes, dairy foods do contain the most bone-building calcium— but you can get plenty from plant sources and supplements.
Foods to eat: leafy green veggies, beans, almonds and tofu
Supplement: Consider supplementing with 300 mg/day. Note that the RDA for calcium is 1,000 mg for most adults (it jumps to 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70).
Like calcium, the sunshine vitamin is essential for keeping your bones strong. Many Americans are missing out on vitamin D in winter, so supplements are often a must.
Foods to eat: fortified nondairy beverages, fortified orange juice and UV-treated mushrooms
Supplement: Some dermatologists recommend you get all your vitamin D in supplement form: 600 to 1,000 IU /day.
It can be tricky to get enough immune-supporting zinc on a plant-based diet, partially because meat is a good source of zinc, and partially because vegans eat higher amounts of foods containing phytates (think: legumes and whole grains), which can mess with zinc absorption.
Foods to eat: nuts and seeds, tempeh, miso and oatmeal
Supplement: The RDAs are 8 mg/day for women and 11 mg/day for men—but vegans may need up to 50 percent more. Consider supplementing with roughly the RDA and eating zinc-rich foods.
Plant-based athletes should pay special attention to both amount and timing of protein consumption for maximum muscle gains.
Foods to eat: tempeh, tofu, beans and lentils, nuts and quinoa
Supplement: Looking to build muscle? Consume 0.14 g protein/lb body weight every three to five hours. Be especially sure to eat this amount within two hours following exercise. Powdered plant-based protein supplements are a convenient way to hit this target!