A balanced diet for vegans

If you follow a vegan diet, how do you ensure you're getting all the right nutrients? We explain portion sizes and recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals, plus give you recipes to help you stay healthy...

A balanced diet for vegans

A vegan diet is often accepted to be a healthy one, and thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and potentially some cancers and type 2 diabetes. Nevertheless, if you’re a full-time vegan it is important that you plan your meals and snacks carefully to get adequate nutrition. To help you on your way, here’s our nutritionist’s guide for a balanced, healthy vegan diet...

The basics of a vegan dietbasics

As a vegan you’ll be avoiding all animal-derived foods – so as well as meat and fish that means no eggs, dairy or even foods like honey. You’ll also be avoiding animal by-products like rennet used in cheese making, gelatine in desserts and certain E numbers including the red food dye cochineal (E120). Even so-called vegetarian foods, like the meat replacement Quorn, are off the menu because they contain egg and sometimes dairy. 

Shopping tips

If you’re new to vegan cooking, follow our shopping guide for vegan-friendly ingredients:

  1. Check the labels of all packaged products that you use in cooking such as bouillon powder, stock cubes, sauces and spreads. Ingredients to look out for include whey, casein and lactose, which are all derived from milk. 
  2. Be aware that non-vegan wines and beer may have been processed with animal products.
  3. Remember most breads and pastries contain butter and some contain milk.
  4. In desserts and puddings replace gelatine with agar agar or vege-gel, both are made from seaweed.
  5. Use silken or soft tofu as an alternative to dairy in desserts and be sure to use fortified dairy alternatives for the added vitamins.

Reference Intake (RI) (the new term for Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs))

The RIs are benchmarks for the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugar, protein and salt that an average adult should consume each day. The RIs for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum daily amounts. Don’t forget that we are all different with varying needs for energy and nutrients so this information is for guidance only: 

Reference Intake (RI)

Energy (kcal)2000
Protein (g)50
Carbohydrates (g)260
Sugar (g)90
Fat (g)70
Saturates (g)20
Fibre (g)24
Salt (g)6


Perfect Portionsportions

Numbers and figures are all very well but how does this relate to you? Personalise your portions with our handy guide to finding the right serving size:


FoodsPortion size
Carbs like cereal/rice/pasta/potatoYour clenched fist                              
Proteins like meat/poultry/fishPalm of your hand
Savouries like popcorn/crisps2 of your cupped hands
Bakes like brownies/flapjacks2 of your fingers
Butter & spreadsThe tip of your thumb


Breakfast Creamy mango & coconut smoothie

Vegan diets are rich in fibre, vitamin C and folate (thanks to all that fruit and veg) but you may be lacking in a number of other vitamins and minerals. Vitamin B12 is a good example. We need it for healthy red blood cells and nerve function, but because it’s typically found in animal foods like eggs, milk and cheese, full-time vegans need to include fortified breakfast cereals and soya products, and possibly consider taking a B12 supplement (look for one that supplies 10 micrograms daily). 

Another nutrient to be aware of is vitamin D. Much of our vitamin D is metabolised via sunlight on the skin, but you can also obtain it from fortified vegan spreads and soya milk.  Some vegans choose to supplement with vitamin D, especially during the winter months when sunshine is in short supply. Again, aim for 10 micrograms daily and look for the vitamin in the form of D2, because vitamin D3 is not typically suitable for vegans.

Breakfast is key to starting the day in a balanced way – so whatever you do don't be a breakfast skipper as missing your first meal of the day sets you off on a blood sugar roller coaster, which means you'll end up choosing the wrong foods later in the day. Remember, breakfast makes an important contribution towards your daily intake and it plays a key role in maintaining a healthy weight.

Breakfast suggestions
Vegan tomato & mushroom pancakes
Creamy mango & coconut smoothie
Apple & blueberry bircher
Green breakfast smoothie
Tofu brekkie pancakes

Mid-morning snackEnergy bites

Eating well in the morning is vital for balancing energy levels. The ideal is to eat little and often but you need to make every snack work for you. That means choosing snacks that satisfy energy needs, plus supply extra benefits like topping up your five-a-day or upping your intake of other key nutrients.

Snack suggestions
Cherry soya yogurt
Energy bites


LunchPearled spelt salad with peas & gooseberries

Although vegan diets are healthily low in saturated fat, as a full-time vegan you may be missing out on heart-friendly omega-3 fats, known as EPA and DHA.  We typically get these from fish and seafood, although sea vegetables such as kelp and certain micro-algae supplements can make a useful contribution. It’s also a good idea to include plenty of nuts, seeds and their oils especially walnut, flaxseed, hemp and rapeseed.

Pack your lunch with a combination of carb-rich foods for energy and satisfying protein from foods such as nuts, seeds, beans and pulses. The key is to choose carbs that produce a steady rise in blood sugar, which means passing on the sugary 'white' foods and going for high fibre whole-grains, which help you manage those afternoon munchies.

Lunch suggestions
Bulghar wheat with carrots & hazelnuts
Pearled spelt salad with peas & gooseberries
Japanese noodles with sesame dressing
Herby apricot quinoa
Crunchy chickpea salad
Late-summer tomato & carrot salad
Mexican salad with tortilla croutons
Simple coconut & bean soup
Cannellini bean, cherry tomato & red onion salad


Mid-afternoon snackApricot & seed protein bar

Whether your mid-afternoon weakness is for sweet or savoury there are plenty of healthy options to satisfy. Combine dried fruit with unsalted nuts or seeds for an energising, protein-packed snack. Alternatively, make up a savoury nut and seed mix or enrich a veggie dip with a handful of nuts.

Afternoon snack suggestions
Apricot & seed protein bar​
Tangy roast pepper & walnut dip
Spicy seed mix
Harissa-spiked houmous
Indian oven chips

DinnerVeggie Thai red curry

Vegan diets may be low in protein so it’s a good idea to base your main meals around ingredients like lentils, chickpeas and tofu. Add flavour with yeast extract, which is not only a tasty addition but a useful source of vitamin B12. Fill half your plate with a colourful variety of veggies (especially leafy greens because they supply small amounts of the mineral iodine) and drizzle with a dressing made from flaxseed, rapeseed, walnut or hemp oil. Your body can use these healthy fats overnight for regeneration and repair, which is important for maintaining healthy skin and hair. As a general rule, aim for a tablespoon of ground flaxseed or two tablespoons of oil each day.

Plants are a good source of iron, but it is important to eat them with vitamin C-rich foods to optimise your absorption. For example, combine iron-rich lentils with citrus fruits or peppers. Whole grains are a great source of the mineral zinc, which helps to maintain a healthy immune system.

Dinner suggestions
Chickpea, tomato & spinach curry
Vegetable tagine with chickpeas & raisins​
Lentil lasagne
Vegetable vegan biriyani with carrot salad
Veggie Thai red curry
Vegetarian casserole
Quinoa stew with squash, prunes & pomegranate

This article was last reviewed on 10 May 2016 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Do you follow a vegan diet? We have lots more vegan-friendly recipes and more information on vegan diets, but would love to hear your tips too in the comments below...


Comments, questions and tips

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8th Nov, 2016
' look for the vitamin in the form of D2, because vitamin D3 is not typically suitable for vegans' Please do NOT take D2. It is different type of vit D that is derived and digested differently and has very little use for human body. If you really do worry about the vegan suitability then try to get out to sunshine - with as little clothes as practical and as close to midday as you can. Obviously this is not always possible due to your geographical location and time of year but you will never replace sunshine vit D2 as D3 is the kind that our bodies produce when outside. So please just keep in mind that D2 is not efficient! I am surprised it is even recommended here. I know many products are fortified with D2 instead of D3 but hopefully that will also change over the time.
2nd Jun, 2016
"Vegan diets may be low in protein...." Really!! I was amazed to read the BBC repeating this myth. Science has moved on. In fact it moved on in 1981 but it seems no-one bothers to look at the evidence any more. All veg and fruit contain complete proteins, just as easily absorbed as animal protein, and in more than enough quantity ( meat gives you too much and this has been linked by the World Health Organisation to conditions such as osteoporosis and kidney problems among other Things). All you need to do to get enough protein is eat good whole food. In case you're in any doubt see this well referenced article on the subject: http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/protein.html Who are the nutritionists advising the BBC? Good grief!!
1st Jun, 2016
Hello Lighthouse - the reality is that a vegan diet is the same as every other diet in that it will only help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight/BMI/body fat:muscle ratio etc if you do not overeat and are keeping active. You could overeat as a vegan if you pigged-out on nuts, crisps, chips, smoothies, fruit juices, sweets etc But if you eat a sensible vegan diet then you should enjoy great health benefits - and that would include getting slimmer if you are currently overweight (or bulking-up if you are underweight or want to get a more muscular body). Vegan diets can help slimmers because they provide nutrient-dense foods and lots of roughage so you can eat smaller meals, cut calories, but still feel full and have lots of energy for exercising. In my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of a vegan diet is the fact that very few fast food chains, convenience food manufacturers, and grocery stores sell vegan-friendly food. Why is that good? Surely, it would be better to be able to buy vegan snacks or vegan t.v. dinners and enjoy the same lifestyle as meat-eaters? It is good because it means vegans usually have to prepare all their food at home and thus have to be very knowledgeable about nutrition, take the trouble to source the best ingredients, try new foods and innovate, and develop the skills to put together healthy meals. This skill-bonus generally protects vegans from eating the wrong foods, from overeating, and prevents them developing the health problems seen in people who eat conventionally and are thus prone to poor nutrition, obesity, and associated illnesses. I feel very ambivalent about the fact that being vegan is currently quite popular. On the one hand, it is good because more people are benefiting (and so are animals). On the other hand, I fear that unscrupulous companies will start to jump on the vegan bandwagon and start selling junk food that is merely labelled as 'vegan'. I think there could be a lot of misinformation around and a lot of confusion created by unethical businesses chasing profit at any cost. Established vegans will not be fooled by claims about the vegan health benefits of chips, crisps, salted peanuts, sugary juices etc but the general public or new vegans might be. The popularity of veganism might result in the de-skilling of vegan consumers and make them vulnerable to the same exploitation and health damage that currently afflicts many meat-eaters. In my opinion the vegan diet is a healthier diet than the average diet because it is very often a politically informed choice to 'Just Say NO!' to a food industry that is totally unethical, inefficient, unhealthy and dedicated to profit instead of the service of the public. Now that vegan is becoming popular and there is a bigger market for vegan products, I fear the predatory corporations will start undermining the vegan movement. Watch out for cynical 'Our French Fries Are 100% Vegan - Buy The Healthier Choice - Two Portions For The Price Of One - Eat Yourself Slim!' campaigns. If I might be really paranoid and share my fears, I worry whether the supposed sudden increase in popularity of vegan food is not a marketing ploy created by these corporations exactly in order to subvert Veganism.
13th Apr, 2016
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